Showing 1 - 10 of 570 annotations tagged with the keyword "Aging"

Wayward: A Novel

Spiotta, Dana

Last Updated: Sep-29-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Dana Spiotta is one of my favorite authors, so I was poised to read her latest novel, Wayward, when it was published last year. As expected, it captures the zeitgeist perfectly and is marked by Spiotta’s wide-ranging wisdom, versatile knowledge, and literary creativity.

The book takes place in Syracuse shortly after the election of 2016 (although Donald Trump is never mentioned by name). Sam, the central character in the novel, feels caught in an increasingly unsatisfying marriage. Triggered by her post-election anxiety, she abruptly decides to leave her husband  Matt and daughter Ally. On a whim, she purchases a rundown old-style house in a poor neighborhood in Syracuse and moves in to live as a 53-year-old woman on her own, intent on starting a new life. Matt is disconcertingly understanding and supportive, but Ally cannot abide her mother’s abandonment of the family. It is an unwanted distraction from her single-minded devotion to excel in high school and to go to a top-tier college.

Sam works as a volunteer near her new home at a historical site that is dedicated to Clara Loomis, a fictional woman who left her family (shades of Sam!) to join the Oneida community, an egalitarian retreat based on equality between the sexes but also fuzzy notions of eugenics and human breeding. Sam works her way through some edgy women’s groups in search of friendship. She tries to mingle with her neighbors, who are quite different than the people she encountered in her suburban environment. But Sam’s life is complicated. She realizes that her mother, a self-sufficient creative 80-year-old woman, is probably dying from an undisclosed illness. She feels increasingly distant from the daughter that she loves so intensely, a  problem that her defection to the inner city has only made worse. And Ally has her own precocious story, a secret life, which is told from her perspective, but which is tightly linked with her mother’s narrative of inner growth.

Sam witnesses a police shooting of a Black adolescent, an immigrant from Somalia, while walking near her house during a restless night. While Sam struggles to find a way to articulate what she saw and help achieve some degree of justice for the victim, she experiences an unexpected “assault.” No spoiler alert, except to say that the ending gathers the narrative stands together and is quite satisfying. It is grand in scope and affirms the value of simple human endurance.

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Barefoot Doctor: A Novel

Xue, Can

Last Updated: Sep-06-2022
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Yun Village, China is a remote town near the mountains. Its 2,438 inhabitants are mostly poor but remarkably optimistic and stoic. Ancestors from the spirit realm visit the hamlet and roam the mountainside. The living and the dead appear to communicate with relative ease. Mrs. Yi (Chunxiu), more than fifty years old, is the village's vibrant "barefoot doctor" - an essentially self-taught healthcare provider with only six months of formal medical training under her belt. Yi's husband is quite supportive of her work. Their only child died at age two.

Yi is revered for her knowledge, patience, and compassion. Most afflictions she treats are chronic diseases, but Yi also delivers babies, cares for children with measles, and counsels a woman who attempted suicide. The therapeutic benefit of attentive, concerned listening along with reassurance are evident in her interactions with patients.

Traditional Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and Western medicine are all in the healer's armamentarium. Yi cultivates herbs and also forages on the mountain for other useful plants. She supposes, "Sickness and herbs are lovers" (p244). As Yi grows older, the need for a successor - a devoted, younger barefoot doctor - is always on her mind. She successfully identifies candidates, then inspires and mentors them.


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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

All the [medical] world’s a stage! In elegant prose, with Felliniesque flights into whimsical metaphor, physician-historian-playwright Charles Hayter describes his encounters with cancer, as a doctor and as a son, and how the experience changed him as a person. 

Just as he finishes his residency training as a cancer specialist, his stoic physician father develops cancer. The story of that family illness is interwoven with vivid case histories of patients, recounted personally rather than clinically. These patients display many of the characteristic reactions and behaviors of his own father. 

Several other themes are prominent: the losing battle against death – or rather Death--who is a character lurking in the corners of the consultation rooms; the tensions of a son trying to please his difficult parents with advice and understanding that they seem not to want; the bravery of a gay man coming out to his wife and children to find a new place in the world. 
 

These struggles are placed on a background of the nebulous status of radiation therapy, a maligned and misunderstood specialty.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author’s beloved Jewish mother is a great storyteller. A favorite tale describes how her grandmother was shot dead while sitting on the family’s Winnipeg porch nursing her baby. An accomplished investigative journalist, author Hoffman assumes it is fiction but decides to investigate. He is astonished to discover that, indeed, his great-grandmother was murdered, although the details deviate slightly from the family tradition. 

Through official records, the Census, and newspaper accounts he pieces together the circumstances of her life and death and the frustrated search for her killer. In the process, he learns a great deal about his ancestors and the world of Jewish immigrants in early twentieth-century Canada. Eager to share his findings, he is confronted by his mother’s decline into dementia and the poignant difficulties of grasping and reshaping memories, both collective and individual. 

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

After 65 years of marriage, two life-partners face the prospect of final separation, as one of them develops multiple myeloma. This is the crisis that led Irvin Yalom, eminent psychiatrist, novelist, and pioneer of existential psychotherapy, and his wife Marilyn, acclaimed feminist author and historian, to collaborate in writing the story of their journey through Marilyn’s final months of life. In the resulting book, Irvin and Marilyn write alternating chapters until Marilyn becomes unable to write. After her death, Irvin continues with the story of his bereavement.  

Marilyn’s chapters include reflections on love and illness, ranging from Emily Dickinson and Henry James to Paul the Apostle. She frequently expresses her gratitude: “I can still talk, read, and answer my emails. I am surrounded by loving people in a comfortable and attractive home.” (p. 20) Most of all, she is thankful for her husband, “the most loving of caretakers.” (p. 15) Yet, as her disease progresses, she comes “to the understanding that I would never be the same again—that I would pass through days of unspeakable misery while my body would decline and weaken.” (p. 76) She decides to pursue the option of physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in California, when her suffering becomes overwhelming.  

In his chapters, Irvin resists this decision, maintaining hope for additional “good” life, despite all evidence to the contrary. Near the end, Marilyn’s pain and other symptoms become so severe that she cries out, “It’s time, Irv. It’s time. No more, please. No more.” (p. 139) Her physician arrives, confirms her intention, and surrounded by her whole family, Marilyn sucks the liquid through a straw and quietly passes away.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Five years into writing about her mother’s slow decline from a respiratory illness, Joanne Jacobson was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening blood disease. That discovery dissolved the illusion that she and her mother had separate fates. “How could I continue writing about my mother as though I were observing her from outside the circle of Illness?” Jacobson asks (27). She can’t. And Every Last Breath becomes, as its subtitle discloses, “A Memoir of Two Illnesses.” Doubling its concern, Jacobson’s memoir in essays becomes a richer, more urgent, and ironic revision of her original project.  

With writerly attentiveness, perceptive intelligence, and some impatience, the four opening essays witness the negotiations that Florence Jacobson makes with her body, her environment, and her psyche. From a distanced perspective, Jacobson wonders at her mother’s courage and stubborn animal will to go on. Her mother’s slow pace and reluctance to let go—of her possessions, her habits, her life—initially frustrate and puzzle Jacobson. She even expresses impatience with the constant sound of her mother’s oxygen pump filling the apartment, the inconvenient bulk of the oxygen canister, the tangles of tubing connecting the machine with her mother’s nostrils. 

 As Jacobson’s diagnosis closes the distance she perceived between herself and her mother, it ignites the memoir’s transformative insight. It’s first articulated at the end of the essay titled “Mirror Writing” and it sustains the rest of the memoir. Realizing that her mother might outlive her, Jacobson writes: “. . . I can no longer pretend that the ragged approach of death is likely to be smoothed by nature’s grace, or by the natural order. So long as I believed I was writing about my mother, I was able to hold mortality at a distance . . . Now in the mirror of my mother’s aging face I see myself” (29). In “Dead Reckoning,” when Jacobson learns that her blood is starved for oxygen, she hears her “own lungs fall into the thrumming motor’s pulse” of her mother’s respirator. Revising her response to the technology, she writes that it is “the sound of death being pushed mechanically away that is audible to me now—steadily asserting its nearness . . .” (63-4). Jacobson’s descriptions of her hospitalizations and treatments (“Written in Blood,” “If My Disease Were an Animal”) take her on solo flights toward her new understanding of herself and the “call to the imagination” that her experience issues (59). Jacobson’s elegant and vulnerable rendering of her efforts to survive pain, uncertainty, and terrifying treatments register her own courage and will to go on.  

The final essays bring the shared destinies of daughter and mother together. Jacobson thinks of them as “invisibly entwined, cellular,” as she recalls that mothers’ bodies can absorb their fetuses’ cells (88). In “Book of Names,” Jacobson’s closing essay, she and her mother read out the names in Florence’s heavily edited address book, tracking the alterations in the circumstances of those whose lives she’s shared. It invokes the lists in Genesis. Begotten. Then gone.

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Summary:

Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, narrates and vividly illustrates the pain and difficulty of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Leavitt’s memoir shares her family’s experiences nursing their mother, Midge Leavitt, for six years following her diagnosis at the early age of 52. “I created this book,” Leavitt explains, “to remember her as she was before she got sick, but also to remember her as she was during her illness, the ways in which she was transformed and the way in which parts of her endured” (Leavitt 1). The memoir’s spare, black-and-white panels trace her mother’s deterioration from the first, seemingly innocuous symptoms (such as misremembering conversations and forgetting to unplug an iron) to the debilitating and tragic manifestations of Alzheimer’s, such as confusion, behavioral changes, aphasia, and ultimately, the inability to recognize loved ones. As greatly painful as these experiences were for Leavitt, she singles out from the murk and monotony of caregiving moments that inspire laughter, introspection, and gratitude. Early one morning, Leavitt’s mother wakes her to admire a fresh, “glittering” snowfall (86). On another occasion, Leavitt illustrates a rainstorm. Instead of keeping dry, her mother wants to stand in the downpour: “So finally we let go of her. She stuck out her tongue to taste the rain” (78). For Leavitt, humor brings, if not understanding, comfort when the stifling presence of her mother’s suffering goes momentarily unfelt. Caregiving also stirs recollections about her mother’s personality. Leavitt remembers, for instance, her mother’s love of Granny Smith apples: “She ate the core and stem and everything, crunching loudly” (23). She remembers her mother’s love of nature, “. . . plants, worms, rocks, soil. She did not seem separate from it as most people did” (93). Her mother also adores the poetry of E. E. Cummings and Robert Frost and Aretha Franklin’s music. Leavitt does not allow suffering to efface her mother’s personality, providing a poignantly moving account of how caregiving shapes memory and deepens family love in unexpected ways.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Cyril Wilkinson and his wife Kay make a pact. On Kay’s eightieth birthday, when Cyril is already eighty-one, they will commit suicide together. Cyril, a physician in the British National Health Service (NHS) secured a supply of secobarbital as the means to their end. It was 1991. They have planned well ahead; another twenty-nine years will pass before Kay’s eightieth in 2020. 

Motivating the pact was the death of Kay’s father after “a good four years of steady deterioration, followed by a solid ten of nothing but degradation” from dementia (p. 7). They had just arrived home from his funeral service, and were reflecting on what they had been through. At one point, Cyril says, “Your father frankly made me suicidal—or homicidal—or both. Half an hour in his presence passed like a mini ice age,” and then promises Kay, “I will do almost anything to keep the two of us from acceding to such a fate” (p. 12). But Kay is dubious. 

That’s what everyone says...Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them...Somehow they’ll do something so their aging will proceed with dignity...Everyone thinks they have too much self-respect to allow a stranger to wash their private parts...Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out their miserable end of their lives like everyone else. (pp. 12-13)
And so Kay dithers over the next few months whether to agree to the pact, but once her mother begins showing signs of dementia; “I’m all in,” she tells Cyril (p. 17).

Cyril and Kay proceed through the subsequent twenty-nine years, with Kay raising their three children, retiring, finding new work and passions; Cyril going on and on about politics, the NHS, old people; and both watching their remaining parents pass on, traveling to far-flung locations, becoming grandparents, aging. Then the day arrives; happy birthday, Kay? 

The novel structure is simple or complex depending on how a reader approaches it. The first chapter sets up the pact. The second chapter leads up to the day of reckoning and becomes the first story telling what became of the Wilkinsons’ plan. The next eleven chapters envision alternative scenarios unfolding from choices Cyril and Kay make before and on their pre-determined end date. Some scenarios stem from one or both of them not going through with their pact. Some scenarios involve recognizable and available options today, and some are wholly futuristic and unattainable. Some scenarios are happy, some are sad, all are unsettling. These chapters can read as independent stories offering different choices and endings. But they can also be read as interdependent and collectively building toward a point of view on the question: Should we stay or should we go?   
 

The interdependence and complexity of the chapters arise from the through lines among them. From the third chapter on, for example, the first few sentences of each chapter are taken verbatim or slightly modified from some part of a preceding chapter. Other blocks of text appear in one or more chapters. One through line even extends beyond the book to another of Shriver’s novels (So Much For That). Kay and Cyril exhibit the same personalities and preferences, and express the same general hopes and desires through all the chapters. Other through lines are shared events or recurring arguments and debates; however, not always with the same outcomes.

The four years preceding Kay’s eightieth birthday overlap both the decision of the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) and the Coivd-19 pandemic. Thus, during the time Cyril and Kay are deciding whether they will actually leave or remain on Earth, the UK is deciding whether to leave or remain in the European Union, and while Cyril and Kay are seemingly willing to die rather than fight the ravages of old age, millions of people are willing to fight the ravages of Covid-19 rather than die. These juxtapositions pop up often giving the Wilkinsons’ decision added poignancy.


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The Ministry of Bodies

O'Mahony, Seamus

Last Updated: Jul-26-2021
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Starting eight months before his retirement, a gastroenterologist chronicles a myriad of encounters between himself and others - patients and their family members, colleagues, administrators, hospital staff, and even drug reps. He has worked for many years at a large Irish hospital dubbed the "ministry." His professional work there is divided between the endoscopy unit (where he performs colonoscopies and EGDs), medical wards, an outpatient clinic, and the ER.

Given his specialty, the roster of patients tilts heavily towards gastrointestinal problems: alcoholic cirrhosis, GI bleeding, chronic diarrhea, and abdominal pain. But additionally, his days are filled with patients presenting with a variety of medical problems including pneumonia, mental health issues, heart failure, serious fractures, dementia, seizures, anemia, and cancer. He attends to many frail elderly folks in the emergency department. His interactions with patients range from intense to jovial, from unexpected to heart-wrenching. For example, a woman with chronic abdominal pain asks the doctor if she might be suffering from PTSD. When asked why she thinks that might be possible, her reply is "My son hung himself. I found him" (p191).

The doctor is beleaguered by frequent, and at times wacky, emails generated by the hospital bureaucracy as well as unproductive meetings. He must cope with his own health problems too (a vitreous detachment, arthritic hands, and unexplained nosebleeds). He decries the "foolishness" of excessive medical testing and overtreatment and cites the case of a young woman with irritable bowel syndrome who already had over 1,200 test results logged in the hospital lab. He describes the ministry as "an oasis of kindness and comfort" but "also a place of chaos and conflict, of institutional cruelty" (p8).

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The Father

Zeller, Florian

Last Updated: Apr-26-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

The basic plot of The Father mirrors the all-too-common trajectory people with dementia follow: first they deny any problems; then they progressively need more in-home assistance; and then they require institutionalization. This scenario, however, gets obscured when watching the film’s main character—the father—wrestle with quotidian activities and familiar faces. The viewers wrestle with him, and become just as confused and rattled. Florian Zeller, the screenwriter and director, admits he wants viewers feeling what people with dementia feel. He succeeds in the movie as he succeeded in the Broadway play version preceding it.

The father, Anthony, lived in his London flat with help from hired caregivers and his daughter, Anne, who lived nearby. After Anthony banished several caregivers on grounds they were unnecessary, Anne moves him into her flat, and when he’s too much for her there, she moves him to a nursing home. We’re never quite sure, though. Zeller makes the two flats and the nursing home look almost identical. He changes Anne’s story at different times: she’s still married after ten years; she’s been divorced for five years; she’s relocating to Paris with a lover; she was never relocating to Paris; she relocated to Paris. Anne appears as a different person on occasion and the husband she may or may never had appears as different people. Zeller overlays these confusing surroundings and events by jumping forward and backward in time, and repeating some scenes with slight variations. Eventually, Anthony says, “strange things are going on around us.” Viewers will feel the same, and that’s the point.

The movie ends as Anthony awakes in his nursing home room. Just as we are lured into thinking we have returned to the common dementia trajectory at its end, we see his nurse is the person who had appeared as Anne before, and his room looks like the bedrooms in both his own and Anne’s flats. We wonder.

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