Don’t be misled; cartoons don’t make for easy reading. Roz Chast takes an unflinching look at her interactions with her aging parents in their very, very ‘golden years,’ and discovers there’s a lot that makes everyone uncomfortable. You know what happens? We get old. We get frail. And somehow, we’ve all forgotten this, from the 90 year-olds who insist on living alone, to the baby boomers who insist on believing their parents are eternal, to my own dear little latchkey generation who doesn’t really know what old people are even like (I have no clue what millennials think; but maybe, for the first time in generations, middle class Americans are returning to the multi-generational household, so they’ll become more aware than all of us). As a nurse, this was an uncomfortable read, as it brought back so many memories of witnessing and trying to assist families in dealing with drastic life changes. On a personal level, it brought me back to the time where my great-aunt was insistent on living alone in her apartment, subsisting on cold-meat sandwiches and washing out her Depends, while we were powerless to change her behavior. We can’t all be Betty White, Clint Eastwood or Jane Fonda, growing into our 70s and 80s in silver-haired, politically active glory, jetting about the country and starting new projects.
At any rate, Chast has written a moving, terrible book about the slow decline of her parents, with a father who has dementia and an aggressive mother who denies change, to Chast’s own attempts to appease them even as she tries to help them. She skips back and forth between the present and the past, with anecdotes from her childhood providing insight into Chast’s perception of her parents. A three page story about her mother’s anger issues and overconfidence sets the stage for later hesitancy. But this isn’t funny; there’s nothing comical about the oversized head shot of mom yelling at Chast and her father. The pictures are accurate, and perhaps the cartoon format cushions the blow of the emotion. Or perhaps it makes it more real, because emotion isn’t lost in a slew of purple prose. Concepts and stories are cleverly arranged, not just in strip format. The Wheel of Doom reminds me a great deal of my own anxiety-ridden mother who is always offering advice on the ways the world can harm.
As a hospital nurse, I absolutely recognize the sad story of a slow decline. Many elderly people are living precariously in their homes and apartments, one small incident from disaster. It becomes particularly challenging as some people slide down a slope of forgetfulness, progressing from losing keys and driving routes to forgetting about stoves and paying bills. They eke along in a precarious existence until a fall, or a wrong turn that confuses them, or any number of things that brings official attention. I don’t know what the solution is, but part of me suspects it will be found in the return to multiple generations living together. For me, because of the familiarity with the tale, I didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable read. To add to the sadness, Chast’s parents never particularly gained insight in their condition or reconnected with their daughter.
Chast does offer an absolutely clever but incompletely conceived conception of “palliative” care that I could 100% get behind, ‘Extreme Palliative Care’:
Yet another book that destroys the rating system. While I can’t say that I ‘liked’ it, it was extremely well done, and highlights many of the issues we have coping with aging and caring for aging parents. I quite recommend it, if you want to have some idea of what it means to take care of frail, fiercely independent people.