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February 10, 2016

Are your parents aging? Are you trying to attend to their needs, perhaps to their medical crises, while working and raising children? Or, are you wondering what will happen when your parents can no longer take care of themselves? If so, you are not alone and Roz Chast‘s memoir “Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?” is a must-read.

Ms. Chast is a cartoonist for New Yorker magazine and the book is written in cartoon style. It is funny, wry and honest about the challenges of this time of life. Sometimes, the situations she deals with can be amusing, but they are not fun and she is honest about how hard it is. Anyone who has aging parents can relate to her experiences as she, an only child, navigates taking care of parents who do not want to discuss the future and who are declining before her eyes.

She documents all the high (low) points, trying to have “the talk” about the future, cleaning out their home, moving them to “a place”, obtaining power of attorney, the middle of the night phone calls, dealing with medical professionals and medical crises and making end of life decisions. She is open about her own conflicted feelings, the guilt and the responsibility, financial as well as physical. Some of the funniest most poignant scenes are when the author would like to be the perfect daughter, but her parents are driving her crazy, with their lack of memory (her father, who asks the same questions over and over) or their argumentativeness (her mother).

Roz gives her perspective as to what to expect in this phase of life.: “Once you pass your physical peak – let’s say 25 – the falling-off is incremental. Every year – unless something “happens”- you get a little slower, a little saggier, until you hit 90. At that point, things start to fall apart at a much faster rate. Which is why, when I hear about people trying to figure out how to live until they’re 120, I want to ask them: ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”

When cleaning out her parents’ apartment, Roz found that her parents kept everything. She includes photos of some of the collections, and then comments, “It’s no accident that most ads are pitched to people in their 20s and 30s. Not only are they much cuter than their elders… but they are less likely to have gone through the transformative process of cleaning out their deceased parents’ stuff. Once you go through that you can never look at YOUR stuff in the same way. You start to look at your stuff a little postmortemistically.”

And this: “I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly “done,” there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure oriented. Perhaps opium or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. … EXTREME palliative care, for when you’ve had it with everything else: the x-rays the MRIs, the boring food and the pills that don’t do anything at all. Would that be so bad?”

It took me a long time to write this book review because I kept re-reading the book and finding interesting observations on every page. The heart of the story is Roz Chast’s relationships with her parents and this kept me turning the pages until the end.