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Brutally Honest Memoir on Caring for Aging Parents

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererMay 6, 2014

Roz Chast, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, has created a graphic memoir about her experience with her aging parents during the last several years of their lives. On sale May 6, 2014, the memoir integrates cartoons, family photos, documents and Roz’s witty, touching narrative. 

The duty of being a caregiver to an elderly parent is an important one, but can often be stressful. When the child becomes the parent, the change in roles can be challenging if you don’t find the right balance. Medical News Today revealed in a study from the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego that humor and laughter not only lowers stress, but can also improve brain functionality and memory. There are numerous creative ways for a caregiver to lower stress, and Roz Chast follows the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”

In her memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz highlights the events that made it clear her parents required more than her help as a caregiver. Her dilemma, one that many adult children face, eventually led to her moving her parents into a “Place” where they received round-the-clock care and supervision. Of course, life in the “Place” presented its own share of struggles for her parents and for Roz, an only child.

A Talk About Unpleasant Things

We love the honesty and humor Roz uses throughout her memoir and the poignancy with which she talks about taboo topics like aging, dementia and death. We were excited to have the opportunity to interview Roz and learn more about her experience dealing with aging parents and how she coped through the many stages of her parents’ decline.

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A Place For Mom (APFM): Your story of caring for your aging parents is going to strike a chord with the families we help at A Place for Mom. Can you share with our readers what you wish you would have known then that you know now?

Roz Chast: Two very practical things:

  1. An Elder Law lawyer can be very helpful.
  2. Once you are actively involved in the process of taking care of your aging parent(s), get a notebook to keep track of important phone numbers, your parents’ social security numbers, what medications your parents take, who their doctors are, stuff about their pensions, or their house or apartment. You’ll want to be on top of this stuff and have the information in one place.

APFM: Why do you think people avoid talking about the topics of aging or even death?

RC: Because they’re horrible to think about.

APFM: You use brutally honest humor in your book to talk about painful situations. As your parents’ health declined, were you able to keep your sense of humor? What coping mechanisms did you turn to? 

RC: Sometimes things were funny, and sometimes things were just God-awful. Where you feel: I cannot get through this. And yet somehow, you do. One coping thing for me was writing stuff down and writing emails to good friends describing the latest horrific, unendurable incident.

APFM: Do you think you had a more difficult time in dealing with your aging parents because you were an only child?

RC: Yes. I think siblings can make a lot of things more complicated, but when you’re the only one, sometimes it can feel overwhelming.

APFM: Can you elaborate more on your experience with an Elder Law attorney? How was it helpful, and what advice could you share with other adult children needing to sort out their aging parents’ finances?

RC: The Elder Law lawyer was extremely helpful. He knew what questions to ask my parents and what papers needed to be signed. I had never even heard the term “health care proxy.” I didn’t know what “power of attorney” was. He helped sort out the financial stuff. He’s also a nice guy, a good friend of a good friend had also used him as an Elder Law lawyer. It’s reassuring to have someone who knows what they’re doing to help you sort this stuff out.

APFM: You refer to your father as “the king of the non sequitur” and how taking care of your father did not bring out the best in you. What advice can you give adult children dealing with an aging parent suffering from symptoms of dementia and sundowning?

RC: I wasn’t so good at it, so I don’t know how much advice I can give. When he was obsessing about bankbooks, writing “NO BANKBOOK TALK” in caps on a large piece of paper, and showing that to him rather than yelling, helped a little. Made me feel a little less out of control.

APFM: Was it more difficult to provide care for your perfectionist mother for fear of receiving a “blast from Chast?” What would you tell others who are dealing with parents who need help but who loudly reject any help?

RC: Again, I wasn’t so good at it. Lame non-tip: do the best you can. Commiserate with your spouse and/or friends.

APFM: What advice do you have for the adult child who is “not great as a caretaker” and has aging parents who aren’t “great at being taken care of?” Do you wish you would have looked into assisted living for your parents sooner?

RC: Ha! I HAD looked into assisted living sooner. The problem was, they didn’t want to leave their home and go into some impersonal institution. Who would?!?!? They only went when it became obvious that they couldn’t stay. As for advice: read lame non-tip above.

APFM: Do you think our culture does a good job of supporting seniors in their final years? If not, what could we do better, what would you change?

RC: Our culture does a terrible job with this. I’ll answer the second question by my answer to the next question.

APFM: How has your experience with your parents changed your own personal planning for aging?

My plan for The End: I hope that if I am in a “Place,” I will be surrounded by my friends, have access to art supplies, movies, and books, and that there is medical marijuana available around the clock in ice-cream or dark chocolate form.

Universal Themes that Caregivers Can Relate to

As her cartoons portray, Roz’s father initially dubbed the “Place” a hellhole; her mother viewed as a prison. For adult children turned caregivers, Roz’s moving story, and her perspectives on aging and death, should resonate. Her memoir may also help other caregivers feel less alone, better understood and capable, even in moments of self-perceived ineptitude, as their own similar story unfolds.

Roz’s memoir is on sale now and will surely delight anyone who is a caregiver, especially those caring for senior parents. Do something good for your heart and mind by taking a laughter break with Roz’s cartoon memoir.

After your own experience with caring for an aging parent(s) or other loved one, what have you learned about yourself that will impact your personal plan for aging? 

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Jennifer Wegerer
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Jennifer Wegerer
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