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Published: Thursday July 24, 2014 MYT 5:15:00 PM
Updated: Thursday July 24, 2014 MYT 2:20:16 PM

Cartoonist Roz Chast's memoir shines a funny light on elderly care

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's touching memoir is a funny yet unflinching document on the reality of seeing one's parents grow old.

Known for her simple yet sharp drawings as a political cartoonist in New Yorker, Roz Chast's latest book is a memoir that broaches the uncomfortable subject of caring for ageing parents with a wry sensitivity and a touch of gentle humour.

Readers of her Chasts’ new book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? see their own experiences reflected in Chast’s sketches of her struggles caring for George and Elizabeth, her stubborn, quirky, “codependent” Jewish parents in Brooklyn, during the last decade of their lives. Blunt but witty, her words and images have sparked thousands of letters from caregivers nationwide. “They all say nobody talks about it,” says Chast.

Topping The New York Times graphic books best-seller list for nine weeks, her book helps lift the veil of silence among those with ageing and ill parents.“I get nervous checking my webmail, because I can’t respond to all these people,” Chast says. “Whether they are Midwestern Lutherans or Jewish girls from Brooklyn, details are different, but the story is the same.”

Above, cartoonist Roz Chast and the cover of her latest book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Below, Chast's take on the reality of letting her parents go bit by bit. 

Chast didn’t know how to broach the painful issues of elderly care with George and Elizabeth, who lived independently into their 90s. “I didn’t want to bring up these issues, but there comes a time you have to,” she says.

The drawings show how Chast hired an elder lawyer, someone better able to tactfully address medical options. Elizabeth, a self-described “Jewish Christian Scientist”, informs the attorney that hospitals are where “you go to die” and that doctors “have a God complex”. Her preferences, however, are clear, and emphasised in capital letters. Elizabeth does not wish to become “A PULSATING PIECE OF PROTOPLASM!”

Hospitals cannot be avoided: George breaks a hip, and Elizabeth’s diverticulitis worsens. George’s fracture leads to a rapid decline. “He wanted to pack it in,” Chast says. “My mother was furious, because she wanted him to fight.” His physician recommends hospice.

“Hospice is a very strange thing,” says Chast. “You can sugarcoat it anyway you want, but basically it means we are not going to do more because there is nothing more to be done.” Elizabeth remains in denial, insisting soup will do the trick.

Difficult questions: The cartoon panels in Chast's memoir are drawn from interactions she had with her parents in their final years, often resulting in awkwardly candid moments.

Elizabeth survives George by two years, a financial drain Chast describes candidly. “If she lived another year, I would have had to take a second mortgage or go into our savings for our kids’ college,” Chast says. “I was really starting to fray.”

The US$7,000 (RM21,164) monthly facility fee prompts a bedside conversation, recommended by a hospice aide, in which she tells Elizabeth “you are running out of money”. Elizabeth dies days later. “It was shocking that I said that, but the hospice people knew I was starting to freak out.”

Its wit, realism and willingness to shatter taboos make this memoir a must-read for those facing similar circumstances, many health providers say. It is one of several graphic books released in recent years addressing serious illness and death in what is called a “golden age of comics” in healthcare by Penn State University humanities and medicine professor Michael Green.

"Where do you go after... you know...?" Questions about the afterlife gets wry answers from Chast's parents.

“It does a fantastic job exploring ambivalences, challenges and mixed feelings one has around these issues,” says Green. Graphic stories such as Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles and Brian Fies’ Mom’s Cancer, he says, provide nuanced perspectives on the multi-dimensional topic of end of life care. “Because they not only use words but images too, the images do a great job showing what it feels like. Emotional context gets conveyed that is moving to people.”

Such graphic memoirs normalise topics that aren’t discussed in American discourse, says MK Czerwiec, artist-in-residence at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, whose website is called Comic Nurse. “When you’re going through something like that, it’s great to know you’re not alone and to be able to laugh at it,” he says. 

Chast is delighted to share those laughs with readers, stressing her tale is one of more light-hearted empathy than instruction. Of caring for her parents, she has this to say: “I don’t feel like I did a great job. It was trying to pick the least bad of a lot of bad options.” – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Family, Books, Family, Books, Roz Chast, cartoonist, New Yorker magazine, parents, elderly care, memoir, Can t We Talk About Something More Pleasant

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