Several years ago, we did a BOTM post on Atul Gawande's book Better. Gawande is a surgeon and writes with an incredible sensitivity and appreciation for digging deep enough into an issue to appreciate its nuances. His style is reminiscent of a medical Malcolm Gladwell.
I first heard about his new book Being Mortal one Sunday at Kibuye, when Jason was reading it outside his house on his Kindle. (Marvels of technology...) Arriving back in the US, my desire to read it intensified. Why?
Because Gawande has raised issues that American society has a desperate need to have articulated. The population is aging, and the idea I hear the most is this: I would be happy to live and long and productive life, or I could die tomorrow. It doesn't matter.
However, this is an awfully incomplete sentiment, since the majority of people will not experience either of these alternatives. The norm, for better or worse, has become a life that ends only after a significant period of increasing dependence and disability. And we don't know what to do about it. So we don't really talk about it, and we barely think about it.
Enter Being Mortal. One of its main points is that the medical field is ill-equipped to navigate this conundrum, because it is a kind of historical accident that society has ended up putting the aging culture in the hands of the medical establishment. So, as a doctor, the book is useful in helping me recognize my own feelings about aging and end-of-life care.
It is a very personal book, where Gawande shares stories from his grandmother-in-law and his father, and well as a wonderful story about his grandfather in India, which he uses to debunk the idealism of the traditional model of caring for the aged at home. He talks about deciding when too much medical care is too much. And he talks about retirement communities, assisted living, nursing homes, and hospice, all in great depth. He often speaks about how things don't work, but he also showcases several people thinking outside the box to find improvements and bring these important aspects of society into better focus.
He doesn't answer all the questions, but he gets our cerebral wheels turning, and does leave the reader with some helpful take-home points. He is (as far as I can tell) a nominal Hindu and a functional secular humanist, so he doesn't have much to say about death itself (and what may or may not come after). As a Christian, I can look elsewhere for that.
Rachel and I find ourselves discussing his ideas with almost everyone we meet. We've roundly recommended it, and even bought it for some people. As one reviewer said: Only read this book if you will ever grow old and/or die.