The saying is, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” And it’s true. Aging — and caring for aging loved ones — requires an inner strength and resilience many people don’t know they have — or need — until late in life.
The aging person discovers things they are no longer able to do. They discover that in the words of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, that their “body is falling apart.” And many experience forgetfulness at many levels, from misplacing words to losing people.
The younger person caring for an older one quickly realizes they are caring for two people — the aging relative and their own self as well. Even with excellent home care professionals on hand, the caregiver — usually a child and frequently a daughter — still must manage the burdens of career, family, self and the elderly.
Both the aging and the caregiver should find ways to feed the mind during this process. Reading memoirs and other non-fiction on the process keeps the mind resilient and helps both know they are not alone in this process. Others have done it before, and their experience can help make one’s own experience easier.
Memoirs and other depictions of aging cannot only give ideas, but inspiration. These types of books may not provide a checklist of things to do, but they can give insight into the quality of life found by being part of the aging process.
Jane Gross’ book carries many lessons for caregivers. It is a no-nonsense, practical guide to providing the best care possible to the elderly, while still living your own life. She covers a full range of topics, from finances to Medicare to the advisability of nursing homes. Gross enables you to become an advocate for your aging loved one, while still caring for yourself.
One key takeaway from this book is that when you can take the time to plan, you should. Even if an aging parent receives a concerning diagnosis, there is still time to arrange for assisted living, home health care and other steps necessary for the next stage of everyone’s life. The key is open and good conversation and communication.
Atul Gawande, a Boston-based surgeon, focuses on the medical side of aging in his Being Mortal. He finds that sometimes the conflicts between what medicine can do and what it should do interfere with the quality of life. His focus is on ensuring people live good lives until the end, as that the quality of life matters. He also recognizes many physicians are ill-trained to deal with end-of-life discussions and issues.
Being Mortal addresses thoughtfully and clearly the greatest fear — the things which happen short of death, not death itself. The increased dependence, the hearing loss and the failing body, all present great concern, but also a great opportunity.
The book also is filled with significant facts and figures, some sobering and others exhilarating. Dr. Gawande stresses this may be the best era to be old, because of the choices available to the elderly.
It’s likely that most people fear extended dementia or Alzheimer’s as they age. Failure of the mind seems scarier than the failure of the body. The 36-Hour Day is a practical guide for caring for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe memory loss.
The book has been in print for over 30 years and has recently been updated and revised. It addresses all issues of concern, from insurance and Medicare to long-term care residence selection to diapering. You will have uncomfortable moments reading this, but as a resource it is unmatched.
Love, they say, makes the world go around. John Bayley’s memoir of his love affair with his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, and her disappearance into the darkness of Alzheimer’s is an excellent example of this sentiment. It is an unsentimental look at a disease which seems particularly devastating when inflicted on a person whose life was one of the mind. It frankly discusses Bayley’s rage and frustration in providing care, but, despite the lack of sentimentality, it is a heartbreaking story.
Elegy for Iris is in part based on journals kept by Bayley while caring for his wife. One way of caring for yourself as a caregiver might be to keep a journal. You don’t have to have an eye on publication to use the empty page as a shoulder to cry on.
One of the more well-known memoirs of aging, Tuesdays with Morrie, focuses on the relationship between a man around 40 and his former professor, dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Their “semester” together — 14 Tuesdays — allowed them to reconnect and explore together the meaning of life.
Tuesdays with Morrie reminds everyone that the way to know another person is to engage in conversation.
This memoir of dementia and a daughter’s care is based on the years the author, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, took care of her aging mother as she slipped into dementia. One key takeaway from this book is self-care. The caregiver must attend to her own mental health, finding patience and seeking moments of tranquility. She also points out the ability to find humor in any situation and to make sure that laughter is part of the process.
All good novels and memoirs feel like visits with friends. Lisa Ohlen Harris’ Memoir of Caring for her mother-in-law, suffering from COPD, provides a loving and helpful look at what needs to be done. The book focuses on the advance directive — which is never as thorough as one hopes.
Addressing end of life issues requires honesty with both yourself and your loved ones, whether that end is years, months or days away. This visit with friends helps ground the reader in the real-life application of the issues raised in self-help books.
Growing old is indeed not for the faint-of-heart. But grow old we will. The variety of experiences discussed in these books will help you, and your loved ones, manage all the stages of elder care. Because of the many choices, from home health care to skilled nursing homes, we all have diverse ways to achieve the same goals.
Aging presents both difficulties and opportunities. These books help you handle the former and take advantage of the latter.
Gary Simmons is a Senior Care Advisor and the child of aging parents. He writes about his experiences for a blog on aHandtoHold.com.