A nurse practitioner who works with the elderly told me Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is, “perhaps the most important book of our times,” and I agree. Gawande, a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a bestselling author, gives us an unflinching look at illness and death and suggests a better path forward for the aging and those who treat and care for them. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country, there could not be a more important topic or more important time to discuss this.
As a surgeon, Gawande was trained to treat ailments, to attempt to fix people’s health problems, to intervene. But over time he realized that intervention and prolonging life isn’t always the best way. Gawande takes us through his personal discovery as both a doctor and a son, as he contemplates what matters most. By connecting with his patients as people, not just cases, by collaborating with hospice workers, by touring assisted living facilities, and by supporting his own father through his illness and eventual death, Gawande opens himself and his readers to new possibilities for the aging.
He shares a vision for what assisted living was supposed to look like and what is still possible. He forces us to think about what’s best for our loved ones: to age at home or to accept more care in a facility. He urges us to have difficult conversations about death and dying before it’s too late and he shows us the wisdom and benefits in doing that.
Having recently been present at two deaths, one in a hospice home and one in an ICU, I too have some insights and opinions on end of life and medical care vs. palliative care. My experiences have shown me that although we cannot control death and that we cannot eliminate all suffering for our loved ones, we can make informed choices if we are willing to face illness, aging and death, and, we can and should focus on helping people live well as long as we can, knowing that definition may shift over time for the sick and elderly.
I am still raw with emotion from my own experiences so Being Mortal was not an easy book for me to start or finish. But it is an important book and I urge allcaregivers to read it. Likewise, my hope is that people like Gawande, who want to help the aging, will consider caregivers as a critical part of this conversation. Being Mortal touches on the caregiver’s challenges; Gawande introduces us to Shelley, a woman advocating and caring for her father while trying to maintain her own family life and career. And he writes, “Your chances of avoiding the nursing home are directly related to the number of children you have, and according to what little research has been done, having at least one daughter seems to be crucial to the amount of help you will receive.” (Emphasis mine)
We know most of the people who provide unpaid care to the elderly are women. We know these women are often struggling to balance already overtaxed lives as working mothers. What we don’t seem to know is how we best support those caregivers so they can best support the people who need care. We can’t realize Gawande’s vision without addressing this. Read Being Mortal and start talking.