As a 47-year-old, it’s of course no secret that my still-living parents are now in their deep elderly years; and without going into details, I deal with the same issues concerning them as most other middle-aged children with living parents in their seventies and eighties, sometimes with charming results but more and more often frustrating as they get older and older. And that’s why I’m so glad to have accidentally come across Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? while on a recent random trip to the library, a 2014 comics memoir that won that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize and the Eisner Award, as well as being nominated for the National Book Award.
A look at the topics this New Yorker cartoonist dealt with as her own parents transitioned into assisted living in their nineties then eventually died, certainly there are some isolated moments of “aren’t the elderly so adorable” humor; but make no mistake, the main point Chast is making here is that the process of caring for people near the end of life is mostly a demanding and infuriating one, a relationship that often resembles the one a young parent has with a very small child, but maddening in this case because that “child” is actually a fully grown adult who by all rights should know much better than to behave the way they often do. And that’s the irony of the elderly in a nutshell, a paradox for which we gather more and more evidence with every passing year; that in many ways, people near the end of life regress to a childlike level of refusing to practice self-care, often because they’re scared or angry about their situation and therefore go into deep denial about the changes in their lifestyle that need to take place. And that’s even when they’re fully lucid and in charge of their faculties; add things like dementia and Alzheimer’s and the situation gets a hundred times worse.
We see this in Chast’s memoir in numerous ways, from her parents’ refusal to see doctors when sick to their outright hostility over the idea of leaving the broken-down Brooklyn apartment where they’ve lived the last half-century, a place they can quite plainly no longer navigate without injuring themselves on a daily basis, yet one they’re determined to stay in until it literally kills them; and I found Chast’s reaction to it all deeply relatable, a combination of deep worry and “all right, to hell with you then” nonchalance, which is then exacerbated by guilt every time she leaves her parents alone and then they hurt themselves once again. Weaved into this, then, are biographical looks at the relationship she had with these caregivers when a child herself, a changing New York City, and the schism between privilege and need that goes through any middle-classer’s head as they watch their parents quickly burn through their savings on the kind of healthcare at the end of life needed simply to keep them alive, but not in any way happy or content or wise like we so romantically wish to picture one’s elderly years.
It’s an eye-opener for sure, a book that millions of people have deeply identified with precisely because Chast speaks the hard truths here that none of the rest of us want to say out loud — that caring for elderly parents is a tough slog, one with hardly any bright points but with endless low ones, and that is daily challenging our society’s belief of what “quality of life” means in an age of almost science-fictional healthcare for the very old. What’s the point of even going to those kinds of measures just to bankrupt sick, mentally deficient people who don’t want it in the first place, and whose refusal to acknowledge their diminished capacities do nothing but exact a profound emotional toll on those who love them? There’s no easy answers to questions like that; but Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? at least examines those questions with panache, intelligence, and a wry sense of dark humor. It comes strongly recommended to those who find themselves in a similar situation.