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Caregiver’s Tragicomic Memoir Taps Into Familiar Feelings

Book of the Month: January 2015

GEN-BLOG-BAN-BOTM-JAN-600x460-141230A new year is approaching, which means it’s time for new routines and regimens in the name of personal betterment. Here at Residential Home Health, our resolution is to spend the year ahead self-improving — and creating ever-better resources to help you and your loved ones do the same. Therefore, we are introducing the Book of the Month series to highlight some excellent texts for patients and caregivers.

But just because 2015 is firmly in our sights doesn’t mean that we’re ready to put 2014 behind us. As December winds down and the “best of 2014” lists spring up, one award-nominated book keeps reappearing. Thus, we’ll ring in the coming year with one of this year’s most praised: a tragicomic memoir of an only child caring for her aging parents, and coping (or, more accurately, failing to cope) with the enormity of the job.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, a 2014 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction and New York Times bestseller, follows author and illustrator Roz Chast as she thanklessly shepherds her mother and father through their final years of life. True to the title, Elizabeth and George Chast refused to discuss the prospect of illness or death, even into their nineties — instead, they stayed in their distressingly grimy apartment and shouted down any suggestion of change or aid. But when Elizabeth suffered a fall that brought on a prolonged illness, and the subsequent loss of routine aggravated George’s dementia, their snowballing decline forced Chast to assume the massive burden of their care, housing, and finances, alone.

Chast herself writes, “I wasn’t great as a caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of” — and indeed, this memoir is not intended to serve as a how-to for elder care or communication. Rather, much of the story is a frank admission of how unprepared she and her parents were to face these challenges, and the thick cloud of guilt and failure that welled up with her every shortcoming. Yet in this respect, the book supplies a strong emotional kinship for caregivers or family members going through their own struggles with an aging loved one. Chast’s maddening interactions, constant feelings of insufficiency, and misplaced anger are full of honesty and raw sentiment (and, be warned, a sprinkling of curse words), and may strike a chord with readers who have experienced similar frustrations.

A book illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist, Chast casts her memoir in graphic-novel form; in essence, every page consists of handwritten text and illustrations, which add to the book’s agitated quality. Through her overwhelmed perspective, the absurdity of the parent-child power struggle — the younger struggling to do right by the resistant elder — can be brutally funny, especially to a caregiver who’s no stranger to such feelings of futility. (It’s something like Charlie Brown, but with infinitely higher stakes.) The read can be relatively breezy if focusing primarily on the words, but deepens with close examination of the illustrations, which are not only flush with detail, but also heighten the anxiety and perceived failure that mark the book’s comic highs and affecting lows.

The role of caregiver can be all-consuming: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Even for the best of caregivers, feelings of extreme stress and frustration are par for the course. Thus, for readers recently or currently in the thick of it, Chast’s memoir can be a timely emotional companion — a reminder that they are not alone in their feelings, that all they can do is their best.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir
Roz Chast
Bloomsbury USA
228 pages, $28.00

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