Dotting regional and national bestseller lists in recent seasons have been various memoirs. Among this year’s notable entries are: Reading My Father, by Alexandra Styron (Scribner), daughter of the acclaimed novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice et al.), who himself wrote a memoir about overcoming a serious bout of depression at age 60; Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (due this fall from Knopf), on the the tragic death of the author’s only daughter at the age of 39 (Didion’s memoir of the year following her husband’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking, was published in 2005); Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story (Ecco); and The Long Goodbye, by the poet and culture critic Meghan O’Rourke, on losing her mother to cancer at age 55 (Riverhead).
I have just finished reading A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves (Knopf), by the award-winning New York Times journalist Jane Gross. It is not only an affecting memoir of her mother’s life and slow decline but an informed and helpful resource. It is always engaging, yet often brutally candid about the author’s relationship with her mother. (Her brother shared in care-giving responsibilities.)
Gross’s mother originally lived on Long Island, then moved to Florida after her husband’s death. She managed well for seven years until back pain revealed cancer of the spine. Her daughter and son brought her to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, followed by rehab, relocation to assisted living and, finally, a nursing home. The author freely shares the questions, frustrations, challenges and lessons learned as she chronicles a waning life (not to mention juggling her service tasks and responsibilities with work as a reporter for The Times). Having been a part-time caregiver for my own mother during her decline, I felt a strong kinship with Gross as I read her book.
And we are not alone. A total of 65.7 million Americans, the author notes, serve as unpaid caregivers. Gross came to see that as her mother’s needs were changing during the latter phases of her life, it was necessary to have reliable and knowledgeable back-up—social workers, nurses and other professionals and, ultimately, round-the-clock care. She applauds these helpmates for “caring about us as a family unit—[with] neuroses, nastiness, unresolved issues….”
Gross emphasizes the importance of doing one’s homework as to what expenses are covered by Medicare, investigating nursing home conditions and in general assuming the role of “advocates for their frail, elderly parents,” especially once they are in an institutional setting. She mentions reports by advocacy groups that indicate, despite regulation and oversight, worsening conditions in homes, due in part to worker shortages and increased turnover, as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements have gone down. “Nursing homes commonly, to my naïve astonishment,” she discovered, “physically or chemically restrain patients, generally those with Alzheimer’s disease, because behavioral methods are so much more labor-intensive.”
Ultimately, the author’s mother—a strong-willed, stubborn, frugal former nurse—voluntarily stopped eating and drinking. Death came a month later. Feeling orphaned, as she put it, Gross revisited a photo album and found comfort—just as I did and continue to do—in celebrating special moments with her mother, “with me beside her, cheek to cheek…smiling so hard [I thought] my face was going to break.” This is a sharp contrast, the author notes, to the “slack-jawed, tilted-off-to-one-side broken puppet in a wheelchair.”
Bittersweet, indeed, is this memoir. I’m glad I didn’t have to write it, but grateful that someone did.