Senior Concierge Blog

The purpose of this blog is to explain the Senior Concierge profession and to provide on-going assistance to senior concierge professionals with tips and tools for their business, and information from the field about the day and the life of a senior concierge. Enjoy! Rachel Laws Senior Concierge

Friday, July 22, 2011

This looks like a great book about caring for a loved one

How to Care for Your Mother

Combining personal narrative with practical advice, as Jane Gross does in “A Bittersweet Season,” is a tricky business. A reader swept up in a story is apt to resent the intrusion of brass tacks. And a reader looking for how-tos will have little use for the details of an author’s own tale. Particularly perilous are the transitions between the instructional and the essayistic — passages reminiscent of the fraught moments in Broadway musicals when ordinary speech must lift into song. There is the actor, speaking his lines; suddenly he leans on his pitchfork, squints into the distance and breaks into a soaring rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”
Courtesy of the author.
Photograph of Jane Gross and her mother, Estelle.


Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves
By Jane Gross
350 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95
Or, in this case, “Pore Jud Is Daid.” Gross, a former reporter for The New York Times who wrote pioneering stories about AIDS and autism, here takes on a subject she knows from experience: the trials of caring for an aging parent. She mixes an account of her mother’s difficult last years with a “hard-earned list of tips” on eldercare. Her chronicle of her mother’s decline is intimate and affecting, and her advice to readers is insightful — but the shifts between the two are often far from smooth.
The story part begins just over a decade ago, when Gross’s mother, Estelle, a widow in her mid-80s, becomes too frail to live alone in her Florida apartment. Gross recognizes it’s time for her mother to undertake a “reverse migration,” a move back north to be near Gross and her brother. But she is unprepared for the burdens and crises that follow her mother’s relocation to an assisted-living facility in New York: the plaintive (or demanding) phone calls, the late-night emergency-room visits, the medical tests that stretch into all-day ordeals. Most painful for Gross is seeing Estelle, a proud and private woman, frustrated by her growing infirmity. In a tiny, telling scene, the author observes her mother trying to remove her socks: “She resisted assistance in taking them off, but watching her struggle both saddened and annoyed me.”
Gross tries yoga, manicures and “retail therapy” to relieve the stress of these emotions, but the strategy that seems to work best for her is acting like an expert. She makes aging her beat at The Times, writing articles on topics like elder abuse and living with Alzheimer’s, and ultimately creates the newspaper’s popular blog The New Old Age. But however much it may help her, this coping mechanism can make for a bumpy ride for the reader of “A Bitter­sweet Season,” as Gross veers between frank confession and finger-wagging lecture. Feel the whiplash as she lurches from describing to preaching without so much as a paragraph break: “These were among my early lessons in how hard it is to be old, how long everything takes, how much some of it hurts, and how a loving caregiver must stop moving at the warp speed of a New York minute and adapt to the pace of someone who is disabled, making it look natural and effortless. Don’t shame your mother into rushing to keep up with you. First, it’s not nice. Second, both of you will have to cope with her broken hip if rushing leads to a fall.”
Gross writes eloquently about the need to act as her mother’s protector once she is moved again, from assisted living to a nursing home. But her tender passages, even when they offer sensible counsel, are too frequently marked by this hectoring tone. “You will have to play this role, too — by building meaningful relationships or, failing that, by currying favor. See to it that the management types like you,” she exhorts, adding for good measure, “Do not berate the staff, constantly complain or micromanage.”
While Gross the expert may tout the transformational potential of caregiving, Gross the storyteller reveals a different reality: in the crucible of crisis, the people here seem to become more incorrigibly themselves. Gross, a self-described control freak, grows ever more intent on planning for every contingency. Her brother, Michael Gross (the author of books including “740 Park” and “Rogues’ Gallery”), relies increasingly on his breezy charm to evade responsibility. Their squabbles over how their mother should be cared for only intensify a longstanding sibling dynamic, as the author candidly observes. “My self-righteous behavior was surely not helping . . . but rather hardening the old stereotypes of good-goody sister and screw-up brother, which had been tamped down until this situation kicked up all the old dust.” (Her admission is closely accompanied by a patronizing aside to the reader: “It sounds completely neurotic, but believe me, you’ll have some of these feelings; it goes with the territory.”) And Estelle? “Until the bitter end, my mother remained frugal, contrarian, clever and antisocial,” Gross writes.
But then, unexpectedly, we begin to see tentative movement — if not in the entrenched temperaments of this threesome, then in the bonds between them. In the face of Estelle’s inexorable decline, her relationship with her daughter, stiff with a tension of many decades’ duration, starts to soften. Gross begins to appreciate her brother’s ingratiating advocacy on their mother’s behalf, and even the ability to compartmentalize that allows him to preserve his energy and peace of mind. Gathered in Estelle’s room at the nursing home, the three of them enjoy moments of unaccustomed intimacy and even humor. When Estelle’s speech becomes increasingly slurred, her children buy her a “talking board” with buttons she can press to communicate simple messages (recorded, for kicks, in Michael’s voice): I’m cold. I’m hot. I’d like a cup of coffee. Close the curtains, please. For the last couple of buttons, Michael encouraged Estelle to “say” whatever cranky thing she chose. “She thrilled to the task and thought up two messages,” Gross writes. You’ll be old someday, too, you know, went one. “The other message, and the button I’m told my mother wore out from overuse, was the ultimate plaintive cry of a woman who treasured her privacy above all else,” Gross ruefully recounts: Get out of my room, it barked, adding an obscenity for good measure.
Michael, who had chafed at his sister’s overbearing manner, eventually accepts that this is her way of showing she cares, and by the end of “A Bittersweet Season” the reader comes to feel the same. The aging and death of a parent transports us to a strange, sad land, a place no one wants to visit but where most of us have been or will someday have to go. Gross wants us to be prepared: Always bring a spare pair of glasses and a phone charger with you. Write down where you left your car in the hospital parking lot. Realize that the smells of a nursing home bother you more than they bother your parent. Such admonitions have the bracing air of things not said aloud before, even if they concern matters that few of us would choose to dwell on. Gross seems to acknowledge this, quoting a work-life expert: “Nobody wants to think about it beforehand. When you’re in the throes of it, you don’t have time. And when you’re done, you don’t want to go back there again.”
Estelle died eight years ago at age 88. To her credit, her daughter has gone back there again, returning with a forthright story and trenchant advice. At its best, “A Bittersweet Season” manages to send its voice aloft, its two parts harmonizing in sorrowful, haunting song.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”

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