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Episode 338

Tough Love

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Posted by Mary Ann

Roz Chast has published a number of books, but this book is a breakthrough for her. Most of her previous books have been collections of her cartoons, and though I suppose you could say every one of her cartoons tells a story, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is a story from beginning to end – the story of her struggle with her parents to accept both help and mortality.

I think just about everyone I know has either been through this or is going through this. Nobody likes to accept that they’re getting older, and that the end point of getting older is, well, dying.

The first book I want to mention is “Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders” by Mary Pipher. This book, which came out in 1999, was one of the first to look at the emerging phenomenon of “the sandwich generation,” Baby Boomers who, like Chast, had both their own kids to raise and their elderly parents to be concerned about. Probably the biggest takeaway from this book for me was her insight that many of today’s elderly survived the Depression and place great emphasis on being self-sufficient. They hate to talk about feelings; stoicism is their armor against the world. The fear of NOT being self-sufficient is one big block to their discussing the prospects for becoming dependent on others. Of course their children, the boomers, place great weight on talking about feelings, but their parents may find such discussions painful and to be avoided at all costs.

Next up is “A Bittersweet Season – Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves” by Jane Gross. Gross was a New York Times reporter and blogged for many years for that newspaper on the subject “The New Old Age.” This book attempts to braid together both the story of her mother’s aging and decline, her attempts to care for her and a guide for other caregivers on what they will have to face.

Gross coped the way I suspect a lot of journalists would – she read up on everything and attempted to become an expert on the subject (she even took on the aging beat at the New York Times). That didn’t entirely protect her from the emotions involved – her sorrow at watching her mother’s decline, her mother’s longing to both continue to care for herself and to retain her privacy. An added twist to this book is Gross’ relationship with her brother Michael, also a writer. Initially she was put off by what she perceived as his unwillingness to shoulder responsibility, but eventually she realized that his lighter touch actually helped in communicating with their mother. The lesson: everybody has their strengths. Another lesson, Gross writes: “being clueless is the central and unavoidable part of this experience.”

A book by a superb writer about an entirely different kind of caregiving is “Making Toast” by Roger Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt and his family were gobsmacked by a family tragedy – his daughter, an apparently flawlessly healthy pediatrician, collapsed on a treadmill and died at age 38. She had three young children, ages 7, 5 and 2.

The Rosenblatts moved in with their son-in-law to help care for the kids, and the book eloquently lays out how they coped (and didn’t). Rosenblatt’s wife Ginny became the surrogate mother, working with a truly exceptional nanny; Rosenblatt, who couldn’t be a father figure because their kids had one, became a kind of friend/jokester/clown. Together, the whole family struggled through an unthinkable loss and devastating grief. The title refers to the way Rosenblatt would get up each morning and make toast for each child, exactly the way they wanted it – those quiet kindnesses added up to a lot. Their tools for coping were, one reviewer wrote, courtesy, “consideration and correct behavior, elevated to an art form. As their world crashes around them, they rush in to help and simply stay, doing the work that is needed.”

Finally, I’d like to recommend a couple of books that are more practical guides.

I’ve heard a couple of people recommend Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide, by Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler. This 2005 book is said to be a good resource guide for adult children. It covers a lot of ground: Medicare, choosing what kind of care your parents will need and, also very important, learning how to take care of yourself. The first of the book focuses on managing family relationships, working out issues with siblings, and ideas on how to talk to your parents.

The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents, by Susan Piver, Gotham Books, 2004.

This book, in workbook form, has 100 questions that begin with the very basic – do you have a will? To the more sweeping, such as …what do you want to be remembered for? Wow, that one would stop me in my tracks. It’s designed for adult children and their parents to ask themselves and each other.

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