Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

I recently read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and found the book to be sensitive, insightful and intriguing. Gawande, a surgeon, has taken a hard look at aging and terminal illness and concluded that sometimes modern medicine does more to harm than to help.   Skilfully weaving together the narratives of his patients and his own father’s serious illness, he raises a number of important questions. Gawande confronts North Americans’ preoccupation with safety and wonders if we are robbing seniors of life’s meaning by overprotecting them. He looks at the value of allowing seniors to choose for themselves instead of coercing them into making choices that reflect the comfort of family members rather than the possibilities of joy for the senior. Looking at terminal illness, the author questions our insistence on longer life no matter how much suffering may be caused by following another course of treatment. He asserts that many terminal patients who opt out of extensive treatment may live as long as (and have better life quality than) patients who insist on yet another course of treatment. Helpfully, he includes questions that may be used to begin a conversation around illness, death and quality of life—topics that are difficult to approach and extremely sensitive.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help reflecting on the aging and deaths of family members and how I would like to approach these issues when they become pertinent to me. I’ve thought a lot about my elderly mother-in-law whose back was severely twisted with scoliosis. She commented numerous times that her deformity made her feel ugly. She had been an attractive woman in her youth and she continued to dress and groom herself attractively as she aged. One thing she felt made her look beautiful was high heels, and after watching her teetering, twistedly, down a set of stairs carrying a huge turkey in a roasting pan, refusing offered help, I put my foot down and told her I wouldn’t go out with her again unless she found some cute, sensibly-heeled footwear. I recall announcing, “You won’t fall on my watch.” She complied, grudgingly, and I heard about it over and over. Her shoes made her feel uglier and she resented giving up her heels. Twice my mother-in-law had serious falls, breaking her pelvis and femur, and I felt that I needed to protect her. Did I do the right thing? Did she need my protection? Did she have the right to risk a serious fall in order to feel beautiful? Does an aging person have any duty to caregivers?

Gawande doesn’t answer these questions, but he gives a framework for beginning the conversation. He is not a Christian, yet he speaks of life with tremendous dignity and confers that dignity on his patients. As a committed Christian, I have no difficulty weaving his views into my beliefs about life’s sanctity and purpose. I read a library copy of “Being Mortal,” but have since purchased my own. I intend to read it again and ruminate on its themes. If I had any hope of growing younger I wouldn’t have bothered with my own copy. But since I’m pretty certain five years from now I’ll be five years older, I’d like to have Gawande’s wisdom at my fingertips. If you are aging, know somebody who is aging, or have even the slightest risk of becoming ill, I’d suggest you also pick up a copy of Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.” It won’t save your life, but it might help you, in the end, to live it.

Karen Vine is a first-time contributor to the Soul Care Collective! Welcome, Karen!

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