By Jonathan Kozol
Crown. 302 pp. $26
Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” set a high bar for memoirs about caring for aging parents. Jonathan Kozol’s “The Theft of Memory” can stand proudly beside Chast’s on the growing shelf of literature about losing loved ones to dementia. Though Kozol’s book lacks Chast’s wit (and cartoons), it shares that book’s refreshing frankness and lack of self-pity.
Kozol’s story is one of dogged determination to do right by his parents, who both lived past 100. Their blessings, he writes movingly, “outlive the death of memory.” His empathy should come as no surprise to readers familiar with his advocacy for disadvantaged children in such books as “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace.” Like so much of Kozol’s work, “The Theft of Memory” addresses important issues about a defenseless segment of society, the elderly, with plainspoken clarity and deep-felt compassion.
Kozol’s parents at first seem unlikely candidates to fall into a dire state. Harry Kozol was a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital whose patients included Eugene O’Neill. By the time of his retirement, Dr. Kozol and his wife, Ruth, had about $2 million in assets . Dr. Kozol wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease until he was 88. Ruth, two years his senior, remained mentally sharp, if physically frail, through her 10th decade.
Dr. Kozol’s cognitive decline accelerated after a fall that required hip surgery, and he was moved to a nursing home at 90, without his wife. Despite the added attention of several private caregivers, he pleaded repeatedly and heartbreakingly to go home. Finally, after more than six years — with the couple’s financial assets dwindling at an alarming rate — Kozol moved his father back home to their apartment in Cambridge. Steadfast private health aides agreed to share full-time care of both the 96-year-old physician and his increasingly infirm 98-year-old wife.
This quickly depleted his parents’ ample savings. But Kozol rejected a lawyer’s advice to sell off their valuables, declare them indigent and transfer them to nursing homes paid for by Medicaid. Instead, he covered what his father’s pension and Social Security checks did not, despite his mother’s concerns that he’d be left short if he lived as long as they had. “I could not imagine anything more disconcerting than to return him to an institution and, this time, my mother with him,” Kozol writes.
Kozol’s moving personal story is flecked with sharp insights about the health-care system. He saves his harshest criticism for his father’s inattentive geriatrician and a culture that seems to value lives based on potential for future contributions to society. He rues “a system of heartbreaking and bureaucratized medical impersonality” and the uncomfortable sense of “passivity, procrastination, and inertia” that he got from his father’s doctor.
Kozol says he wrote the bulk of this memoir in the year following his father’s death, then put it aside for years. The distance allowed him to recognize his omissions, including the tensions that had long simmered between the “commanding and authoritative” father and his activist son. (He apparently had fewer compunctions about writing bluntly about his mother’s “customary crankiness” and “tartness.”)
Kozol also writes of the pressure he felt about signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. He confesses to some “selfish motivations” for his resistance: “The truth is that I did not want to let my father die because I could not picture life within this world without him. As nonresponsive as he often was, and physically enfeebled as he had become, I could not escape the crazy thought that I still needed him.” With this book, he has shown how much his father needed him, too.
McAlpin reviews books for The Washington Post and other publications, including NPR.org and the Los Angeles Times.
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