I expected a book of cartoons to be laugh-out-loud funny. But I didn’t expect that a story told in sketches would also make me cringe at its honesty or break my heart.
In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast bares the painful decisions adult children often have to make as their parents’ health declines. She offers an unsparing look at how she handles—and mishandles—their falls, forgetfulness, stubbornness, dementia, abhorrence of nursing homes and dependence. I know it sounds grim, but leave it to Chast, a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, to mine the humor in their decline and her efforts to help.
She offers a rare and unsparing look at the grist of aging: health-care directives, money, care and trust. I was touched by her frankness about how hard “those conversations” are. And as a financial advisor, I was pleased that she didn’t shrink from those topics, though her parents—who uttered the lament that became the book’s title—clearly would have preferred to talk about anything else.
Chast, an only child who lives in Connecticut with her husband and kids, simultaneously resents being responsible for her parents in Brooklyn and feels guilty about feeling resentful. It doesn’t help that her parents stubbornly resist help, even as they become increasingly frail.
Chast’s father, George, is a gentle, extremely anxious retired teacher who has a tendency to break everything he touched. Her mother, Elizabeth, a retired assistant principal, has a sharp tongue and volatile temper, bragging that she fires “a blast from Chast” at anyone who crosses her.
Their daughter knows she’s outgunned by their collective resistance to change. So she gets help. She arranges for an Elder Lawyer to visit her 93-year-old parents in their increasingly cluttered and grimy apartment. “I learned about their pensions. I learned about their taxes,” she writes. “… I learned about incredibly boring stuff like some account they opened up in 1979 where every month, they got a check for $53.17. We all did wills and filled out health-care proxy forms and power of attorney forms. It was all stuff I never wanted to know about, but that’s what an Elder Lawyer was for: to help you learn about it.”
As difficult as this was for the Chast, they made a wise decision to share their financial situation and their end-of-life wishes. And giving their daughter power of attorney—and the ability to make financial decisions for them—enabled her to follow their request and safeguard their assets.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Chast constantly worries about running out of money for her parents’ care. Two years after her father’s death, her mother, who’s living in a nursing home, begins to decline and needs around-the-clock nursing. “We were blowing through my parents’ scrimpings at breakneck speed: about $14,000 a month, none of which was covered by insurance,” Chast writes.
But there is a bright spot: Elizabeth bonds with a private nurse, a Jamaican woman named Goodie. Goodie is “smart and strong-willed and a good match for my mother,” which is clearly no mean feat. And though Chast feels guilty not “doing the dirty work,” she’s relieved that her mom is so well cared for, grateful to Goodie for her hard work and not a little jealous of their camaraderie.
Of course, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? doesn’t have a happy ending. Anyone who picks up the book knows that. How can grief, frustration, senility, death and wrenching decisions about money and health be upbeat?
Yet strangely enough, this isn’t a grim book. I think that’s because it’s a tale told with extreme honesty. Chast acknowledges how she struggles to parent her aging parents, trying to remain respectful and compassionate as she loosens their stranglehold on independence. It’s tough to turn that parent-child dynamic on its head, especially when health and finances are involved. But Chast navigates this rocky territory with empathy and, ultimately, humor.
Emilie Goldman is a financial planner and the owner of Tamarind Financial Planning in San Mateo, Calif. Contact her at Emilie@tamarindfinancial.com.
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