Talking about ageing, end-of-life and death are some of our last cultural taboos.
Roz Chast’s graphic memoir of the final years of her parents’ lives, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, explores these topics with raw honesty and biting humour.
Her portrayal of her parents – who seemed to be quite characters before illness and dementia made life even more interesting – is incredibly touching. She is frank in her own frustrations and challenges with the situation – portraying herself as the loving and dutiful daughter who can’t help but ask the question, “What about my inheritance??!!”
Chast’s observations on ageing and the inversion of the parent-child roles are acute. The falls, the phone calls, the disorientation, the declines, the rebounds, the surreal conversations, the panics, the eating, the weight loss, sundowning … It’s heart-breaking, bittersweet and oh-so-relatable.
One of the things that most surprised me however, beyond the family drama, was the extraordinary cost of care in the U.S. – in Chast’s case it was $14,000 per month. It’s an astounding figure – and only possible to meet because her parents scrimped and saved all their lives.
For me, this book spurred so many questions about ageing.
What happens when you can’t afford the level of care you need? Are you just left to die in a room? Do I really want to live to 100? Is longevity such a great thing if this is what the end-of-life looks like? How does one age with dignity? Or do you let go and embrace decrepitude? Where do compassion and utility of healthcare intersect? We have an ageing population – what’s it going to be like in 50 years? Surely there are some smart, compassionate people out there who are changing the system so that no matter what one’s financial situation, your final years can be lived with dignity in a caring environment? Surely? And, urgh, what really does go into the “senior’s energy drink”, Ensure?
I know that in Australia, there are a range of services that assist the aged in maintaining their independence and the Government’s website on aged care states “You will never be denied the care you need because you cannot afford it.” But I’m also aware that government’s change and with the increasing privatisation (and defunding) of welfare services, I’m not sure I have faith in a profit-driven health industry to address this one.
Like I said, this book has provoked a lot of questions for me …
Chast is a well-known cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine whose take on the angst of family life has garnered her many fans – and quite a few books. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant seems to have flown under the radar in Australia. It was recently announced as a finalist in the National Book Awards (the major U.S. awards) so will hopefully get more attention here in the next year.
I look forward to the conversations.