A Bittersweet Season:
Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves

by Jane Gross

Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-27182-2.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 04/05/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Elders; Nonfiction: Relationships

Last week, I did it. Something I'd been "going to get around to" for well over a year. I signed a new will reflecting my move from Georgia to Texas. It wasn't so bad. I'm glad it's done. I'm also glad I read Jane Gross' well-named A Bittersweet Season. It prompted me to go ahead and get on with it. Not that I'm planning on cashing out anytime soon, but then, one never knows.

Gross skillfully combines sage advice with a tender and telling memoir of her mother's declining health. In a period of three years, she moved from being a self-sufficient woman in her eighties living alone in Florida far from either of her two children into a totally dependent being who "wanted nothing so much as a dignified way to die."

The family was fortunate in many ways. The adult children, Gross and her brother, had no children of their own competing for the attention they had to pay their parent. Finances did not present an unsolvable problem. The mother herself was remarkably realistic. She decided when she should stop driving. (I remember well the battle that with my mother!) She made the decision to sell the family home and downsize to an assisted living apartment in Florida, far from her New York home and family. Things went well.

Until they fell apart. The mother's health turned down; she had a benign tumor on her spine. What to do? Neither Gross nor her brother Michael knew. They had to decide and quickly. Should they move their mother back to New York? What medical care did she need? Where could they find a primary care doctor who accepted Medicare? One question, one problem, one decision, and then another, and another, and another. "Double ignorance" plagued them. "We did not know how it worked and we didn't know that we didn't know." Again, I remembered my own mother's final years. I suffered from the same lack of knowledge.

Gross' story is of more than her mother's decline. It is also about sharing the responsibility with an equally caring sibling, but one who expresses his concerns and cares out his responsibilities in ways far different from hers. (Michael Gross shared his memories of these times with his sister. They are an important part of the book.)

It is well-known that caregivers can become exhausted. It is important for them to care for themselves as well as their loved ones. This did not come easily for Gross, but as the full title indicates, she did learn the lesson and cared for Jane as well as for Mother—all while working at a high pressure job New York Times. By giving up some salary and some perks she negotiated a four day workweek making sure that some of the new free time was not spent at the nursing home.

Her long career as a journalist serves Gross well. Not only is her story skillfully told. Without being heavy-handed or didactic she includes in the narrative many suggestions for those dealing with aging parents of their own. She also includes hard, and hard-to-discover facts that caregivers need to know. She moves through the labyrinth of Medicaid and Medicare. She makes suggestions about financial management, and personal relationships. She covers all the bases. The book is a good antidote for the double ignorance dilemma.

Gross' fine writing should make this book attractive to a general audience but it will have particular appeal for all who will someday grow old and to those who will care for them.

Jane Gross has worked as a journalist since college. Before joining The New York Times, where she remained until 2008; she now contributes to the newspaper and a blog, The New Old Age, as a freelancer. She also worked for Sports Illustrated and Newsday. She has taught in graduate programs at University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

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