Care Tactics

As a parent you think of modeling kindness for your kids so even if you didn’t do the exact same thing in your life, I would hope that you would look for ways to help others and be kind.”

-Janet Aasness

What does it mean to care for someone? How do we learn about care by watching our caretakers care for others and what do we take for granted when they care for us? How is teaching a form of caretaking? Janet Aasness has been a teacher and caregiver for decades and is a mom of two, she’s my mom. When I was growing up, I tagged along as she cared for elderly neighbors and friends. It seemed to me that everyone must have an elderly friend they looked after. I wanted to ask my mom how she remembers those relationships and if my memories matched up with hers. Along the way I wanted her advice about teaching, and to have a conversation about care in our family, and how the landscape of what we each need shifts as we grow and grow old. If I were to describe the quintessential characteristics of a conversation with my mom, I would say first, at some point, some word or phrase would compel her to sing a song with the same words, she knows a song for every occasion. Second, she will (like everyone in our family) sometimes make clicking noises to indicate something instead of using words. Both of those things happen in the following conversation, please enjoy a classic conversation with Janet. 

Caryn: How did you come to start taking care of older ladies when I was a kid?

Janet: I think that’s so interesting because I don’t think I knew that I did until you pointed it out. But I think that I learned it from my mom. That was something that she always did, I think also without necessarily recognizing it. When I was really little I remember that every month we would have a list of people at the nursing home that was nearby and she was given the job of providing their birthday cakes or whatever birthday celebration. So she’d say, well, I need to make three cakes and then we’d go and deliver them and sing and do all that. For some little stage of my life, that was kind of her responsibility. I was probably young enough that I wasn’t in school, so I was included in the project. Then she always had somebody that we would pick up on the way to church and there was always somebody that she was looking after. I was just brought along for the ride usually. She said the other day, and it just made me smile; one of her little ladies that she took care of was somebody who was kind of just used to being alone and not super open and not super friendly. It was hard, but she just kept going and going and going. Pretty soon they became really sweet friends, but it took patience and at one point, the lady told her how she appreciated it. She knew that she wasn’t easy to get to know, and she appreciated that my mom took the time to keep coming in. I thought that was sweet.

Caryn: I remember we would do things for Mrs. Dieckman across the street sometimes, but then after she passed away we would go and see Maryann. In my memory, it was every weekend or most weekends, but is that accurate? Did I always go with?

Janet: You didn’t always go with but it was pretty regular. So Mrs. Dieckman was our neighbor, she was sweet. We always tried to be friendly and helpful if we could be but it was never anything official with her. Then when she passed away, we really got to know Maryann, her sister. We ended up helping Maryann put on the estate sale. Maryann was pretty much all by herself. It started out as just friendly visits, and then she expressed that she could use a little help with certain things she couldn’t do herself. I would go, I don’t even know how often but regularly, maybe every other week or something, and wash her bedding and take her to the grocery store, or go to the grocery store for her, take her wherever, whatever she needed. So it was a regular deal. 

In appreciation for the help with the estate sale, she got tickets to the Lion King musical for our whole family. 

Caryn: I remember going to the Lion King and I remember being at Wells Fargo with Maryann one time…

Janet: Oh, that took so long! 

Caryn: It took forever, yeah. There was another little kid in the waiting area of the bank and you had two calculators in your purse for some reason and gave them to us and we made up games on the calculators. I also remember being over there helping you guys clean out Mrs. Dieckman’s house.

Janet: Mrs. Dieckman had all kinds of interesting stories too. She had been married and then they had their one son. They had a liquor store that they owned that was in, I don’t know, downtown LA and she told me once that she was robbed at gunpoint when she was running the store and they locked her in the cooler. She was in there until the police came, so for a while.

Caryn: Their son had polio, right?

Janet:  Yeah, when we cleaned up that house, we found all kinds of his stuff. All his friends had gone to Vietnam to fight but he was unable to because of his health. So we found letters that they had written to him. He raced cars, and he died in a car racing accident. She was lonely after she lost him, that was a big blow in her life.

March of Dimes Poster featuring Donnie Dieckman. Image courtesy of Janet Aasness.

Caryn: Would you have said she was a hoarder?

Janet: I would say that she definitely was a hoarder, and she was embarrassed about it. We came to visit her one time and there was so much stuff. She basically said I was addicted to the Home Shopping Network and then she said to herself I just have to stop. So she got a handle on it, she made herself stop, but for a while, that was something she definitely had a problem with, yeah.

Caryn: I remember tons of stuff just still in boxes.

Janet: Yeah, and odd stuff.

Caryn: Odd stuff?

Janet: Yeah, remember that weird camera thing? Those closed-circuit cameras? I don’t know if they worked.

Caryn: They did work, it was like you could watch… it was kind of like this, like FaceTime [Gestures to Janet on the screen]. But early on like, you could only really be in the next room over. You could be watching a person on a screen, and they were watching you on a screen.

Janet: It seemed like they were very limited. It didn’t seem very useful. 

Caryn: I think we set it up and watched a model train go around. That’s all I remember.

Advertisement for Mitsubishi Visitel, a product similar to one Mrs. Dieckman bought from the Home Shopping Network. 

Janet: That seems like something dad would have checked out. Yeah, she was always very sweet to you guys. She gave you Christmas cards, she was thoughtful. Oh yeah, Mrs. Brown. She was down the street. Do you remember her?

Caryn: No.

Janet: Her name was Brown, she always wore brown, and she lived in a brown house. You don’t remember that?

Caryn: Wow. No. 

Janet: It was easy to remember her name. It wasn’t just ladies. Mr. Nathe, he was sweet.

Caryn: He would always say hello to me, even though I was a child. 

Janet: Yeah, he was very kind. Remember he had bought that little swimming pool so he could check inner tubes for leaks and then once he was done with it, he gave it to you and Dylan? Very sweet. He would always get the two-for-one Western Bacon Cheeseburger deal and give one to dad because he couldn’t eat two!

Caryn: Oh, I want a Western Bacon Cheeseburger right now! 

Janet: I would go get you one if I could.

Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Image courtesy of Carl’s Jr.

Caryn: Thanks. If you did bring me with you to Maryann’s or Mrs. Dieckman’s or whoever, were you thinking about it as being an experience that I would learn from or was it just sort of like I was around, it was Saturday, so I went with?

Janet: I think that as a parent you think of modeling kindness for your kids so even if you didn’t do the exact same thing in your life, I would hope that you would look for ways to help others and be kind.

Caryn: What do you think you learned from taking care of these older folks?

Janet: I think again, they have a story, they’ve lived a life. They’ve had joys, and they’ve had losses. They have stories to tell and wisdom to share. Anybody you meet has a story and unless you take the time to ask or listen, you don’t really know. You can’t assume that you know what their deal is. I totally remember Mrs. Dieckman saying, Yeah, I used to watch baseball but it’s so slow. I can only watch hockey now. [Laughs] I would not have expected that, I had no idea. 

I think I recognized out in the world, a lot of times, somebody is having to deal with something hard, having trouble with something, whatever; and to me, I would want help on that or I would want company at least. It’s helpful even just having someone to be alongside me for the stuff I do know how to do. Just seeing people doing the hard thing without help, that makes me want to help. So that’s part of how I ended up getting involved with people too. I just think that would be hard, so I feel sympathy for that. 

Caryn: Do you feel like that’s how you show people that you care about them?

Janet: I think so, yeah. And that the world can be a positive place. People don’t have to fear each other or isolate themselves.

Caryn: When have you felt the most cared for? 

Janet: Well, when I had my babies people cared for me, and when I had my surgery people cared for me.

Caryn: What did they do that made you feel cared for?

Janet: Just checked in on me, called or whatever; brought me a meal, sent me a card, told me they were praying for me. Those kinds of things. My mom brought me fresh squeezed orange juice the minute you were born, that was very sweet. Even just this week, dad is away and Aunt Robin invited me over to join them for dinner. My students often show their appreciation and care. They bring a little coffee or a little something to share with me which is nice. Hairong brought me an açaí bowl this week! 

Caryn: Wow. Did you like it? 

Janet: It was incredible! She put everything in it. Oh my gosh! I didn’t eat it right away so it was very melty by the time I got to it. Is there yogurt normally?

Caryn: I don’t know.

Janet: I think so. I think that was yogurt. I don’t think it was ice cream! It had blueberries and strawberries and peanut butter and little chia seeds, I guess probably açaí in there somewhere or whatever. A bowl of crazy goodness. It was very filling. It was good.

Caryn: [Laughs] Yeah, you teach adults now, but you taught elementary and then preschool for a long time. Do you want to talk about how those experiences compare?

Janet: I think all of them are meaningful and rewarding, they’re very different things. As a parent you have love, you have strong feelings, you have history, so it’s special, and maybe a little more challenging. It can be more frustrating, and heartbreaking. I think that’s a good thing. It’s just a little bit different caring for the people that you love. Not that I didn’t love my students, it’s just one step removed right?

I enjoyed teaching elementary, but I did that before I was a parent. I always wonder, if I would have done that after I was a parent, would I have been better at it? Better at understanding the parents’ side of things and the students’ side of things; just what it’s like to be in school and to have kids in school. I enjoyed it, but I was pretty young and inexperienced. 

I loved teaching preschool, especially in our programs because the parents are part of it. I had so much fun when you guys were that age, so I kind of kept that going and that was a lot of fun. I think I was good at that, I think I was good with the kids and the parents by that point. 

But I like teaching adults as well. It’s a different challenge. Most of the people that come to us had something that challenged them when they were originally in high school. Whether it was a disability or anxiety or just an interruption in their life. So I think we, as a team, try to figure out how to best support them to help them succeed this time around because they don’t usually have positive feelings around school. So I think we have to do more to make them feel at home and accepted and comfortable and encourage them and all that as well as just give them the classes they need. We have lots of positive stories. I had a grad yesterday, his wife and his little two or three-year-old girl came with balloons. Oh my gosh, they were so excited for him! He’s been there probably three years working on his diploma little by little and just about a week and a half ago I sent him an email like, it’s the final countdown, because I could see he was almost done and he’s like, I love that! We have another graduate, he’s one of those that came every day and we all got to have a soft spot for him in our hearts because we saw him so regularly. He’s all done this week, it’s exciting. 

Caryn: It was interesting to watch when you went from having preschoolers to adult students, the types of stories that you were telling about your students were different but your enthusiasm was the same, you’re equally excited to watch them succeed, which I think is cool.

Janet: Yeah, they have different goals, different stories, but they all have their story. That’s the cool part about it, each of them has their story and it’s fun to be part of their story.

Caryn: I’m gonna be teaching pretty soon. Do you have any advice for me?

Janet: Well, you’re gonna do great, I know that. One thing that I was told, or learned over time is to be as prepared as you can be, with your plan in mind. Have everything you know you’re going to need, but then be ready to abandon that and go with the flow. 

Try to think of your students, not just as students, but as people, and recognize that they have, like we just said a story. Maybe a challenging story. Maybe you don’t know everything they’re dealing with. So keep that in mind. 

I always like to encourage my students to let them know that I don’t have all the answers and that I don’t think I have all the answers. They can let me know if they don’t understand, and we can either go over it together or they can usually get really good answers from each other, maybe someone else is able to explain it in a way that you understand better. I always think of when I learned decimals, I wouldn’t know decimals if it weren’t for Holly Thompson. I think I missed a class and I was so confused and she was sitting next to me and said you just do it like this [makes a clicking sound effect and hand motion]. An instant lightbulb went off.

A scan of some of the gloves that were in the collection of Dorothy Dieckman. Long Beach, CA. 2023. Photo scan courtesy of Janet Aasness.

Caryn: What have been the most surprising things to you about yourself as you’ve gotten older or your parents getting older or your kids getting older?

Janet: Well, I can’t believe my kids are as old as they are because I feel like I’m still that old, I really do. I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am. I mean, clearly, I recognize that you are the age that you are, and I enjoy knowing you as adults, which is different from knowing you as kids, but it just doesn’t seem like I’m that old. It’s hard to believe.

I guess with my mom I’m just surprised by the worries that she has and how she really goes back and forth between thinking I can do that and then thinking oh, no, I can’t do that. She has real big swings there between confidence and enthusiasm about something or worry and lack of confidence, fear. Even about the same thing from day to day. It’s interesting. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but that seems to be true for her.

Caryn: When Dylan and I were born, did you have an idea of what you hoped or thought or imagined that our lives would be like as we got older? Did it change as we got older and showed more of our personalities?

Janet: Yeah. I think I just assumed that we would always love each other and get along because dad and I love our parents and got along well with them. I’m thankful that that is true. But I think a lot of things that I assumed are not the way I pictured them just because, for one thing, there are so many things about the world I didn’t picture. Technology and all that made things different. I mean, I think I expected to be a grandparent. I don’t think I’m going to be a grandparent. I would never want to pressure my kids into having kids for my sake. Having kids is a big deal and you have to want to do it if you’re going to do it. So I’m definitely never going to be that kind of mom who says, when am I going to be a grandma?  I’m just going to find other kids to play with, that’s my plan. But I wouldn’t want you to be under pressure. Under pressure… [sings Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie, 1981] I heard that song today.

Caryn Aasness, Elvis Costello, and Janet Aasness. (left to right) Los Angeles, CA. 2011.

Caryn: How do you think or hope that yours and my relationship will change as we both get older and need different types of care from each other?

Janet: Well, I hope we can ask for what we need from each other and say what we are able to provide. I think that we love each other and so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it might be challenging. We’ll have to be conscious about communicating our needs to each other and our boundaries and all that so that we can do it well, and care for each other well. We can’t read each other’s minds, so we have to communicate. 

Janet Aasness (she/her) has been an educator since 1986, currently teaching adults who are pursuing their high school diplomas. She is a caretaker, song lyric virtuoso, and mother of two living in Long Beach, CA.  

Caryn Aasness (they/them) Lives, laughs, loves in Portland, Oregon. They follow their compulsive interests into the topic of hoarding and other manifestations of other peoples’ compulsions. They make work about brains, language, and bodies. Caryn likes to ask questions as an act of care.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207