Friday, April 03, 2009

Memory Lessons

Dr. Winakur with his father

In conclusion to my week of posts on aging, I want to recommend a book I read last week and enjoyed immensely. Dr. Winakur's story engaged me on many levels and he speaks with compassion and great insight.

In Memory Lessons, he talks about his family, his childhood, his medical training and career. He writes poignantly about his father's progressive dementia and physical decline before his death. I emailed Dr. Judy Paley (Femail Doc) after I read the book to inquire if she had seen it. She replied that she had written a review on and copied it to me. I couldn't write a better review, so here it is. (By the way, Dr. Paley has written many reviews for Amazon and if you check this link, you may find other books of interest that she has recommended)

What Would Winakur Do?

If we're lucky, all of us aging children will have a parent or two who motors on into old age, living well for a time to remain our friend, confidante, and grandparent to our children. Lucky, of course, is a relative term, because aging parents pretty much means someday we'll be caught in the middle of a generational sandwich, trying to minister to their increasing debilities while dealing with our own professional lives and the demands of our growing children.

So how lucky are we that Dr. Jerald Winakur has written a memoir/instructional guidebook on dealing with the predicaments and the raging ambivalence of parenting our parents as they lose their independence and health. Dr. Winakur has done an incredible job of blending the professional with the personal, sharing not only medical information about the process of growing older and going to ground--losing height, losing vitality, losing balance, etc.--but how he helped usher his dad through debility and Alzheimer's disease in his role as Dr. Son.

I spent the last two years guiding my mom along life's final pathway, from independence to home care, and finally, with enormous guilt and anguish, into a nursing home where she died 8 months later. I felt isolated, angry, and incredibly grateful at the same time to have spent so much time with her in her final months. I was able to be an informed advocate for her as I too am a medical doctor, and I too played Dr. Daughter, catching incipient bedsores and infected injuries first in my day-to-day examinations. I wondered then, still do, how less medically sophisticated families negotiate these end-of-life roads with more (nursing home staff) or less (nursing home doctors in our case) competent help.

Dr. Winakur has written--perfectly--the how-to book, covering such diverse subjects as why old people fall, what happens to the brain in dementia, how guilt and second-guessing plague even the most knowledgable of caretakers, and when enough intervention might just be enough already. He has been there and done that, both as a geriatrician ministering to thousands of elderly patients through the years, and as a son, loving and caring for his two 'oldest old' patients.

If you've already gone down the caretaking path, read this book to understand what you've been through and to validate your decisions at the time. If you're going there, read it to inform your future decision-making process. Got a friend who's struggling with same? Buy one for her too.

Dr. Paley

We make great preparations for the arrival of a new baby, but people are more reluctant to prepare for changes that happen at the other end of life. Most people enjoy their senior years and contribute much to society as volunteers and mentors. I work with those who age with significant disabilities, but was interested to hear at a seminar I attended that only about 10% of the population in our province end their days in a nursing home. Adapting to inevitable changes, getting help when needed, maintaining a social network, receiving good medical care and following a healthy lifestyle are ways we can continue to live well as we age.


  1. Thanks so very much for this post Ruth and for the recommendation of the book. My parent, ages 76 and 72 are healthy now, but I know the time will come... As you said, having a book with this much perspective and hindsight will be immeasurably helpful.

  2. That seems like a useful book, not only for me to read but to pass on to thos who may have to put up with me.

  3. At first I thought this book would be for me, too late since both of my parents are gone. But reading the review I think it would be a help to me in understanding the feelings I still have (regrets and guilt). I'm going to look for it.

  4. Wonderful words and very appropriate for our times.

  5. Oh my, Ruth.
    Several things: first, today I had the beginnings of a poem come to me--that's usually how I write poetry. I will get a first line or two then sit down and work out the rest. This poem was about my MIL who had Alzheimers disease which eventually caused her death.
    Second, I got a call today from my step-mother who wanted to know what we should plan for my dad's approaching 90th birthday. He is in good shape, for 90, with a practically bell-clear memory. What a gift.
    Thanks for your post.

  6. post.These are things we all will need to face at some time,I have already buried both my parents,one to camcer the other dementia.This is a tough road to travel.

  7. Dear Ruth....I am so grateful that you brought this to my attention. My parents and Mum in law are all in their eighties...I take care of them...... they are only one mile away from me. It is becoming more demanding as time goes on, so this book is on my buy list.
    Thank you ...

    Have a lovely weekend......

  8. Sounds like an insightful and valuable book. I like Judy's review and will click on the link to read her other ones. I wish I'd had this book when my parents were alive. But, as a caretaker to hubby, I think I'll find some good info in those pages.
    Thank you for this post!

  9. Thank you so much for this recommendation Ruth. My 80+ year old parents are starting to really slow down. I don't look forward to loosing them.

  10. Thanks for this book recommendation Ruth. I'll see if my library has it. My parents are about the same ages as Jayne's, so I may be dealing with this situation in a few years too.


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