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Caring for Mother: A Daughter's Long Goodbye Paperback – June 4, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Death is never timely: it comes either too soon or too late. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recounts the aftermath of her husband's sudden death at the dinner table. At the other edge of the spectrum, Owens describes seven years preceding her mother's relentless descent into dementia, "God's own breath slowly leaking out through the fissures in her brain." Afflicted first with Parkinson's, then small strokes and Alzheimer's disease, Mrs. Stem eventually required round-the-clock care. Owens moved next door and spent hours every day with her: "All I could do was squat beside the avalanche, listening for any sign of life; sometimes I could hear a faint but familiar echo of her voice or gesture from under the heap." Through essays as incisive and insightful as Didion's, this account succeeds on multiple levels: medical detective story, personal memoir, flawless description, philosophical and spiritual exploration (where is the self when the brain no longer functions normally?). Owens offers not self-help but hope as she bears witness to the grief and glory of life's ending: "If love... weren't the center from which life flows, if it didn't, as Dante says, move the stars, how could we bear such weight?" (June)
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With the 85-and-older population the fastest-growing segment of the elderly, and with millions of baby boomers sprinting toward their ranks, the likelihood of encountering Alzheimer's oneself or in a family member should increase exponentially in coming decades. Counting herself among this population-in-waiting, Owens offers this thought-provoking memoir of her family's nearly seven-year-long ordeal with her mother's illness. Portraying additional struggles with her own and her father's age-related medical issues, she yet drives home the relentlessness of Alzheimer's demands on its sufferer's circle of support. No matter a spouse's heart condition, or a daughter's challenged visionmother's wandering off at any moment must take precedence. Owens and her father tended her mother a year and a half before the illness demanded nursing-home care. Though the nursing home offered release from 24/7 duty and relieved certain fears and responsibilities, her mother's condition still obliged considerable time commitment from the rest of the family. Rather than belaboring the losses it entailed, Owens makes her experience instructive and conducive to reflection by readers facing similar challenges. Chavez, Donna
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When her mother's physical frailty became problematic and Owens left her Kansas home to stay nearby her parents in Texas, she had no idea the sojourn would span seven years. In that time, her mother's diagnosis moved from Parkinson's disease to Alzheimer's, and Owens watched what she calls the "slow dismantling" of the intelligent and capable person she had known all her life.
What distinguishes this book from other records of a similar kind is Owens's unfailing sense of irony. She takes no prisoners. No one, including herself or her mother, is spared her perceptive eye and subtle wit. Doctors and medical staff particularly, are depicted with total frankness--too busy, too hasty, forgetful, insensitive--including the psychiatrist who tells the patient chirpingly to "get out more" and "find a purpose in life."
Yet the book is fair and full of compassion and the tone throughout is exactly right, an unusual accomplishment when the topic itself runs the gamut of emotions and human idiosyncracies. This is a tough record to read, but hardly depressing, and a wise-spirited author helps you through.
"This is not a cheerful book," Virginia Owens explains in her Opening Note, "but it is truthful."
It's truthful, and it's vivid. The book has a story to tell, as it tracks the author's mother through an ever-increasing dementia toward what we know from the start will be a disaster. In the early chapters Virginia Owens helps look after her mother at home. Her mother has little faith in medicine: "She goes to the doctor the way I went to church as a teenager, bitter and under duress. She takes her pills like an apostate receiving communion, with little hope in their efficacy. A dark night for both soul and body."
It's worse later, in the nursing home--that place, Owens says, "the name of which strikes terror into every person's heart." When she goes to visit her mother, most of the other residents ignore her. She doesn't blame them, "They had every right to their withdrawal. Only a handful of residents have visitors who come on even a weekly basis. Most are visited occasionally, some rarely or never. People who've been abandoned develop a thick coat of defensive frost."
Owens' indictment of nursing homes is calm, steady, devastating. It's as abiding as the anger she sees in the residents: "You can feel it as soon as you come in the door. Cold Rage. For most of the people parked in wheelchairs, their anger has gone so stale after years of overuse that the emotion is routine now.... Anyone is culpable who comes through the front doors and is free to leave again under their own steam."
Owens does her best for her mother, the best that she can manage. But what never goes away, she says, what "doesn't wear out or disappear, is the feeling--no, the certain knowledge--that I could have done more, done better."
I could quote half this book, it's so good.