Politics, sex, and religion aren't the only uncomfortable topics around the dinner table. The subject of caregiving for aging parents is equally fraught: Should my parents be driving? Should they move to a senior living community? Well, hold on to your dinner rolls. In her new book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast dives into the awkward and anxiety-laden caregiver conversations we all avoid.
Elizabeth Boyd and Billy Kluttz of Seabury Resources for Aging recently attended an evening with Chast, a New Yorker cartoonist, who discussed her recent bestseller. A graphic memoir of caregiving for her eccentric aging parents, Chast’s account is by turns poignant and hilarious – as was her presentation featuring cartoons from the book.
EB: I’m here to report that Roz Chast is just as neurotic and hysterically funny as her cartoons.
BK: Indeed. She’s equally frank. I felt the audience’s discomfort, and my own, as she dived head-first into the not-so-pleasant conversations that we all need to have. Living, dying, health, sickness–and lots of sardonic wit–made for an intense, but helpful evening. We laughed at her punchlines; we laughed at ourselves; and we learned from Chast’s struggle to laugh and love alongside her parents as they aged.
EB: Her story is both unique and universal. You may not have stubborn parents burrowed away in “deep Brooklyn” with bizarre food habits, increasing dementia, transportation challenges, and financial phobias, but you will recognize the anxiety-producing decisions Chast faces as her parents age, decline, and die. The book is as much about Chast’s experience as an uneasy caregiver as it is about her parents.
BK: Her reflections on caregiving are an honest accounting of the realities of aging. It’s a lot of stuff. She documents her parents’ accumulation of things–from egg cartons to jar lids–as they age. She also recounts a familiar caregiver concern: what to keep and what to throw away. What she does keep is as personal, and eclectic, as her parents’ own hoarding. She holds on to horse head bookends, some Indian pottery, a picture of a bird. Her (borrowed) advice for how to decide? If you don’t think your kids will want it, don’t take it.
EB: Denial is a huge topic in the book. Chast illustrates that denial is both ludicrous and deeply human. She encourages readers to laugh at her family’s propensity for denial – but also hopes to make a point.
BK: She does laugh at denial, but she also models how to acknowledge the most difficult emotional aspects of caregiving; namely, the reality of death itself. After her mother’s passing, Chast sketches her face and room. These tender, colorless renderings give witness to a moment when no one knows what to do. As a seminary graduate student, I stood in those rooms with parishioners–at hospitals and nursing homes. In those rooms, denial and repression often take the form of busyness. After someone’s death there are lots of tasks to accomplish, but these errands distract us from the pressing emotional work at hand. In pausing and sketching her mother, Chast offers a beautiful model for observing a death. Her simple caption, “my mother died tonight at 8:28,” does the difficult interior work. It acknowledges her mother’s passing in a real way–rather than distracting or turning her death into a list of tasks to be completed. Chast is emotionally present in a way that can help us all to better acknowledge, grieve, and heal.
EB: I hope families will use Chast’s book to break the ice on this topic. It is not only amusing but useful. And if you don’t spot some of your own family dynamics in the Chast saga, you are kidding yourself. With this book, she offers readers a comical, bird’s eye view of an intimate family drama, almost as a public service.
Elizabeth Boyd, Congregational Resources Coordinator, and Billy Kluttz, New Media Coordinator, work for Seabury Resources for Aging. Seabury Resources for Aging supports older adults and family caregivers in the greater Washington, DC area. Learn more about Seabury’s services and online resources, visit their blog and website.