Book Review: On The Bright Side

On The Bright Side, by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans), is the new secret diary from the Dutch octogenarian whose first offering, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, I review here. It is similar in scope so I will not repeat my thoughts – do check out that link for an overview. This sequel is as well written, equally amusing and offers further food for thought. Hendrik’s health continues to deteriorate but he remains sharp enough to provide candid observations on living into old age along with the treatment of the elderly by their peers and those who have not yet experienced the trials of advancing years.

Still living in a state run care home and enjoying his membership of the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik returns to keeping his diary after a year’s break during which he mourned the passing of his beloved Eefje. Grietje has been moved to the dementia wing but the remaining club members, along with two newly elected additions, are still doing their best to indulge in whatever pursuits their failing bodies allow. The diary entries include details of outings to local landmarks, tourist sites and restaurants as well as the day to day issues that must be faced when a body is no longer functioning as it should. Although poignant, the telling is humorous. There is no shying away from incontinence, odours and the restricted speed at which elderly people shuffle or roll from place to place. The delight they take in simple pleasures contrasts with the potential boredom and inertia that builds when nothing is required of them day after day.

A new, national Health Care Law is proving a cause for concern. The rising elderly population is making the cost of their care a hot political issue, with news of cutbacks and closures of affordable homes increasingly prevalent. Mrs Slothouwer, the prickly and evasive manager, is refusing to share whatever plans are being discussed by the care home’s board. The residents have noticed that vacated rooms are not being filled as they once were despite reported waiting lists of many years. In an attempt to find out more, particularly if their home is to be closed or, worse, privatised, the Old But Not Dead Club plan a coup of the Residents Committee.

Given the ages of the inmates, death is a regular occurrence and one that Hendrik ponders and considers planning for. Although suffering maudlin moments he remains determined to make the best of whatever time he has left. His musings on the preoccupations of his fellow residents, their behaviours both deliberate and inadvertent, are considered and direct but largely sympathetic. He has an attitude and demeanour I have rarely experienced amongst elderly people. I wonder if there is an inability to communicate across generations. Hendrik’s views on children belie my own impressions of criticism from his age group. This is, of course, a work of fiction and offers a balance between poignancy and humour.

The writing is tightly woven and entertaining. Most day’s entries are between half a page and a page in length so offer snapshots of varying seriousness. The Old But Not Dead Club are as subversive as is possible given its member’s ages. The help they receive from drivers and others made me wonder how many in reality would ever enjoy such compassion and willing attention.

This is an enjoyable tale as well as a reminder that growing old is a double edged sword. Enlightening, touching, and laugh out loud funny, it is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael Joseph.

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, by a Dutch author whose identity is a closely guarded secret (his words have been translated into English by Hester Velmans), is a must read for anyone who claims they wish to live into old age. It had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions, but this is an honest, poignant and insightful exposé of how it feels to exist in a busy, modern world when one’s body is inexorably deteriorating.

Hendrik Groen doesn’t like old people, particularly their endless complaints and repetitive, small minded conversation. He lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, one provided by the state at minimal cost. He admits that it is not a bad place to be, that the food is passable and he has made some good friends. Many of his fellow residents, however, he derides. Due to his habit of wishing to please everyone he cannot bring himself to say what he thinks, so he decides to write it down, narrating a year in the life of the inmates.

Given that this home is the sort of facility where people go to die, death is a regular occurence. Each time a room is vacated it must quickly be cleared that a new resident may move in. When one such arrival, Eefje, turns out to have a sharper wit than most, Hendrik befriends her. He and his select band of peers have an epiphany – if life is to be improved then they must take action. To the palpable disapproval of management, they set up the Old But Not Dead Club. Outings are arranged and fun is had. Once more, they have something to look forward to, including a chance to fall in love.

Each entry in the diary presents aspects of life from the point of view of an elderly gentleman who fully recognises his incapacities yet rails against the way the growing number of old people are treated by society. He also rails against how so many of these old people talk and behave towards each other. He acknowledges the smells and the leaks and the slowness of their actions; he dislikes these unavoidable features of aging as much as anyone. What he struggles with is the narrowing of horizons, the constant discussion of ailments, the petty bullying and intransigence endemic in their everyday lives.

Alongside the routine are moments that prove Hendrik can still garner enjoyment from life. Their club outings enable the members to try new activities, to eat well and drink with abandon. Such behaviour earns them the rancour of their envious peers.

There are also the trials, when good friends suffer serious health setbacks. There is discussion of euthanasia, dementia and suicide.

The wide ranging scope of the book makes it, in my view, an essential read. It does not shy away from the issues of aging, but neither does it present it as without hope. I loved the fun Hendrik had on a mobility scooter, the way the members of the club behaved on their outings, and the subversive nature of their gatherings within the care home where they flouted the rules designed to make life boringly safe, or  simply easier for the carers.

Hendrik is incorrigible, sometimes grumpy, always relatable. His honesty is both poignant and refreshing. He asks that he may be granted a place in the world, not shunted aside as the embarrassment too many view him as.

It is pointed out that the number of old people is set to grow yet economies in provision for them are forever being sought. Hendrik does not expect to live long enough to suffer the consequences. He offers a reminder to the policymakers that they are ruling on the quality of their own future lives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Think Jam.