In his newest work of nonfiction, Atul Gawande speaks frankly about aging and death: how we can make the final years—our own and those of our loved ones—rich and fulfilling.
The first major section of the book focuses on nursing homes and assisted living facilities, giving a history of how these forms of care giving for the elderly came into being and have evolved. Gawande also talks about cultural elements of elder care and how the issue is approached around the globe. This section of the book really hit close to home for me, as ten months ago my mother passes away. Prior to her passing, she failed rapidly, too rapidly for her independent spirit to adjust to the changes that were becoming necessary in the way she lived her life.
The second major section of the book addressed the time in a person’s life when they are actively dying. When is it time to let go and how can we confront head-on this traumatic end-phase of living? Almost two years ago, we had to make just such a decision for our sixteen-year-old daughter, who had a brain that didn’t grow and spent her life in a severely handicapped and medically fragile body that in no way was equipped to house her powerful soul.
No doubt like many readers, this book was very personal for me. Many of my friends advised me not to read it, as they were concerned that it might be too soon after the loss of my daughter and mother. While I cried during many parts, I am so glad that I did read it. I wish I had read it before either of these two losses occurred in my life. As I listened to the first section, a frequent thought was how differently I might have approached the end phase of my mom’s life had I had the benefit of Dr. Gawande’s insight prior to her life reaching a critical point. My thoughts as I read the second part were more positive, leaving me feeling like we had made the most loving decision possible in helping our daughter have a pain and distress free death that allowed for her personal dignity through the very end.
In both sections, the personal dignity of the elderly and ill is a crucial factor. Dr. Gawande focuses on the patients themselves, frequently reminding his readers that one of the common mistakes in elder care is treating them in much the same way we would treat a child, a practice which is both demeaning to these people in our lives who have the most wisdom born of living and frustrating to them in a time when they themselves are becoming most distressed and annoyed by the limitations their bodies are placing on them.
Being Mortal is bold in asking the difficult questions and giving answers that might not be what the reader wants to hear. I highly recommend this book for all readers, especially if you have yet to personally experience the illness or death of a loved one. As the saying goes, death and taxes are unavoidable in life. Dr. Gawande’s book is a wonderful instruction manual for enabling people to make the most respectful and loving choices during what is always a time of great trial.