Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Carol Luers EymanI hesitate to review this book, because I noticed that of the 12 reviews I’ve posted here, four have been of books or films about aging and dying.

Being Mortal

“Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande is available from the library as a hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

Of course that’s the ending of every human story. Still, I swear this is my last post on that theme for now. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande is too compelling to pass up.

You would expect a book titled Being Mortal to exhort you to sign a living will and talk to your family about your wishes for end of life care.

While Gawande certainly encourages taking those steps, his stories more importantly force you to think through just what those wishes will be.

Gawande’s stories come from patients and health care providers he has known or interviewed. They read as smoothly as fiction as they span the stages of growing old, from independence in one’s own home to the point where things fall apart (often because a person literally falls) and dependency ensues.

Of course, that sequence frequently leads to a nursing home–for most of us, our worst nightmare. Yet Gawande’s chapters on nursing homes are the most informative and hopeful parts of the book.

Nursing homes: the back story
Chapter 3 gives a history of how nursing homes came about. In the 1950s, the government funded custodial units in hospitals for patients whose acute conditions had waned but whose chronic illness, weakness, or disability prevented their release, especially if they had no family to help.

“That was the beginning of the modern nursing home. They were never created to help people facing dependency in old age. They were created to clear out hospital beds–which is why they were called ‘nursing’ homes.”

The second chapter that has stuck with me is “A Better Life, ” in which the author profiles people who have built alternatives to traditional assisted-living and nursing homes. You have to admire Dr. Bill Thomas, who dispelled the pall of imminent death from an upstate-New York nursing home and imported life into the building: He adopted a greyhound, a lapdog, four cats, and a hundred parakeets and immersed the residents in their care.

Read more . . .
If you want to give this author a dry run, look for his occasional New Yorker articles. Two other author/physicians I recommend who write nonfiction for general audiences about the practice of medicine are Pauline Chen (Final Exam) and Jerome Groopman (try How Doctors Think).


About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

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