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.

 

Book Review: Feeding Time

Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Feeding Time, by Adam Biles, is set in an old people’s care home, Green Oaks. Established in an old manor house, it is now owned by a conglomerate whose aim is to maximise profit. It is a place where the elderly and infirm who can no longer cope on their own go to die. The story is laced with humour but also the horror of such places. It portrays the residents with honesty and dignity, despite the many indignities that old age brings.

The reader is first introduced to Dot as she leaves the bungalow in which she and her husband had lived for the past twenty years. She has chosen to join him at Green Oaks where she moved him six weeks ago. Their only son is settled abroad with his own small family. He is dutiful, ringing her regularly for reassurance that all is well. Dot understands that institutions such as Green Oaks exist for the young as much as the old, lifting as they do the burden of care.

It does not take long for Dot to realise that life in this place will be nothing like the impression she was given when she applied to move in. The three wards are communal and staff are few. She is confused when her husband is not on the ward to which she has been assigned. Her fellow residents have multiple, age related health issues which they present to her with something akin to pride.

Dot meets Captain Ruggles who experiences life in the style of a weekly Story Paper from around the war. Each episode is presented to the reader complete with illustrations and advertisements (these are priceless!). His grasp on the reality that others see is tenuous. He believes that he is a prisoner of the Nazis having been accidently parachuted into this camp. He is eager to recruit his fellow inmates and orchestrate their escape.

Green Oaks is run by Raymond Cornish who finds the residents repellent and avoids them. Nursing needs have been outsourced so he now has just three staff to deal with day to day tasks. These young, underpaid Carefriends pilfer drugs from supplies and mitigate their boredom and personal frustrations with petty cruelties enacted against the elderly who they despise. When Captain Ruggles’ loud and lively behaviour disrupts their routine they seek to transfer him to the mythically feared Ward C that he may be chemically shut down.

There is a missing resident, Kalka, whose bed was given to Dot. He may be dead or simply moved elsewhere. The Captain remembers this man saving his life and wishes to return the favour. Discussion about his possible whereabouts, indeed about most things, is a struggle as few of the residents seem capable of retaining a train of thought. They take their drugs then sit in the day room or sleep, leaking effluence and odours while the staff concentrate on their own sorry lives.

There is no shying from the messy issues brought on by advancing age, yet each of the residents is presented as the person they still are inside their decaying shell. The Captain is a fabulous character, completely batty but living a life which in his own mind is real. It is a surprisingly uplifting portrayal of dementia.

The manner in which residents are treated by staff is grim, as is the behaviour of Cornish. What sets this book apart though is its spirit and style. There is a muted energy behind each of the characters despite their infirmities. Mind and bodily functions may have been loosened but there are still moments of perspicacity as they rage against the hand that life has dealt.

While there is still this hold on life there are adventures to be had, battles to be fought, especially against those who regard the elderly as a problem to be managed and silenced. As the staff slip further into mires of their own making, the old seek to enact their cunning plans.

This is a rare and imaginative tale filled with wit, verve and derring-do, as well as leaky, ravaged bodies. It is a story of people and life, strikingly original, brilliantly written and ingeniously presented. I recommend you order this book direct from the publisher now.

Feeding Time | Galley Beggar Press

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press.

Things that annoy me

For no reason that I can fathom, I went through a bit of a downer at the end of last week. Having come out the other side reasonably quickly I am doing what I can to ensure that I keep on top of my erratic moods. I have allowed myself time to read a book, watch a film and go on a long walk through the beautiful countryside on my doorstep. I also tackled a few of the house and garden chores that needed doing. I am still feeling a little unsteady but seem to be coping; I am feeling positive again.

Perhaps because of my unstable moods I have found myself being even more irritated than normal by various articles in the news. These are just a few of the random discussions that have annoyed me this week.

Cosmetic Surgery

According to The Independent newspaper, more women are opting to have cosmetic surgery for ‘bingo wings’. Also, the number of breast augmentation procedures performed has increased by 56% since 2007. Demand for facelift surgery or the more simple botox treatments has increased so much that such interventions are now considered normal in certain circles.

Now, I know that there can be some good reasons for cosmetic surgery. Burns victims; those born with serious and obvious disfigurements; those who suffer a disfigurement as part of treatment for a serious illness; these people can all claim my sympathy when they choose to go under the knife to change the way they look. What irritates me is the healthy women who simply wish to change in order to conform to a media promoted idea of beauty. To me, it shows how messed up our society is that individuals will put forward the whole quality of life argument as a reason to have plastic breasts or wrinkles stretched out. Do they really believe that such interventions will make them happy? Don’t they know that these expensive procedures do not last?

These are a few of my personal views: people are supposed to be different; beauty exists in many forms and involves much more than just looks; growing old is a privilege, not a curse; surgery should be for the ill or the injured.

Indulging in cosmetic surgery for reasons of vanity is not the same as putting on a bit of make up or buying a flattering outfit. It may help to make doctors rich (and I don’t blame them for that), but I would much rather see them using their admirably gained skills to treat the sick.

Elderly Drivers

As people age, their eyesight deteriorates, their responses slow down and their memories become more muddled. At a certain point in their lives it becomes unsafe for them to drive a car. Too often I read in the news that another elderly driver has driven the wrong way along a motorway or lost control of their car in a busy shopping area. That individual probably still thinks that they are a competent driver; they overestimate their abilities because they do not recognise the extent of their natural failings.

I would not advocate enforcing the removal of a driving licence at a certain age as abilities vary considerably. I do, however, think that there need to be stricter  tests on the competencies of those who wish to continue to drive into old age. Arguments are put forward that taking away an elderly person’s driving licence will condemn them to housebound loneliness. I would be more concerned about the safety of others. A car is a killing machine in the wrong hands.

What really annoys me though, is when the elderly complain about young drivers and how dangerous they are. Unless they live in an area that is well served by regular and reliable public transport, young people need to learn to drive in order to gain and hold down a job. They need to be allowed to learn and then to practice in order to improve their competency. Nobody is a great driver until they have gained experience in all conditions. Young people need to be granted the time and space to acquire these skills; they are the future drivers that we will all rely on.

I would like to see equality in dealing with driving offences. If dangerous driving is observed then the driver should be treated the same; age should not be an excuse. Some elderly people complain that young people have no respect for their elders. I believe that respect needs to be earned. I know many, polite, droll, erudite and lovely older people who deserve our esteem. I also hear from my children of older people who queue jump at the bus stop, push past the youngsters and then berate them for not showing deference. What do they expect when this is the example of behaviour that they offer?

The most aggressive drivers that I encounter are middle aged men hurrying to and from work; there are idiot drivers in all age ranges. I do not wish to condemn the young or the old, but merely to see the rules of the road applied fairly.

Politics

There has been a lot of comment this week on the potential for the UKIP to upset the political status quo in Britain. Although there are many flaws with the currant system of voting, we do still live in a democracy. It annoys me that some people are trying to drum up support for their party by dissing the emerging opposition rather than giving sound reasons to support their candidate. All should be free to vote as they choose, however extreme their views may appear. I will not condemn anyone for voting for a party that I personally could not support so long as they have thought through the reasons for their actions. I would prefer people to vote thoughtfully than out of habit or not at all.

When an individual makes clear their political allegiance it is reasonable to discuss their reasons and to disagree with their premises. A blanket condemnation without discussing why choices were made though is arrogant.

and breathe… 

As ever, these random thoughts run around inside my head as I peruse the news. Whatever my initial response, I will try to see the alternative point of view and not judge individual’s choices. Sometimes society seems so messed up that I despair, but then I go out and about; I meet the lovely individuals who make up that society; I remind myself that I shouldn’t believe everything that I read in the papers.

I will continue to try to be a good citizen myself. That is, perhaps, a change for the better that I can hope to achieve.

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A spring set into the wall by the road at the bottom of our garden. The inscription above reads:
‘Drink traveller drink and more than worldly wealth
Enjoy God’s greatest earthly blessing, health’