Senior Management by Martha Vowles

I imagine it would be hard to write an engaging and humorous memoir about dementia–an illness so devastating–but that’s exactly what Martha Vowles managed to do. I enjoyed every sentence. I’m not completely surprised that I loved this book – she had both a brilliant publisher and editor.

At the age of fifty-five, I became a parent for the first time. My new charges were reckless, accident-prone, pig-headed, out-of-control, over eighty years old, and bigger than me.

Not only is this book about dementia, but both of Martha’s parents (her father and step-mother) suffered from dementia at the same time, and lived over a thousand kilometers away. Martha spent years traveling back and forth and/or speaking on the phone with her parents whenever there was a problem, health related or otherwise. And she did it all with love, compassion, and a sense of humour.

To maintain my sanity, I had to step back, shift my perspective, and re-brand each soul-sucking challenge as a “good story.”

Martha’s parents refused for years to leave their house in order to have better care, or to give their devoted daughter some peace of mind. They believed they were perfectly capable of independent living. Martha had to deal with falls, a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, a cardiac valve replacement, melanoma, broken ribs, and her father continuing to drive long past it being a safe thing to do (“I’ve been driving for over seventy-five years, and I’ve never had an accident.”). Even after he finally lost his license, he continued to forget he had lost it. Her father often helped her step-mother take her daily insulin, but then began to forget he had already given it to her, and would give it to her again with dire consequences.

He had always been in total denial that he had any sort of weakness or shortcoming. Getting old was something other people did. Not Alan Vowles.

Martha spent hours on the phone, either with her parents, or with people she had lined up to help take care of or check in on her parents. Some of them proved to be invaluable. She took many months’ worth of leave from work to spend time with them.

With each one of those troubling phone calls, my aversion to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention became more deeply etched in my psyche.

I needed to arrange for someone to stay with Joan. This involved as much planning as a royal wedding. The entire affair depended on the good will and support of a whole cast of people. If one little detail went wrong, the whole plan could fall apart like a house of cards.

One of the biggest challenges for Martha was watching her parents turn into people she didn’t recognize. Her father, especially, became stubborn and morose, and spoke without a whole lot of consideration for what he was saying.

Dad identified all the female home care staff, as well as the rehab staff at the hospital as “the girl.” He could be referring to the attending physician, a nurse, a physiotherapist, or the television installer.

As I said in my Top 10 #GiftAtlantic article for Atlantic Books, “many readers will be able to relate to this personal account of Vowles’ experience caring for her elderly parents. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry as you read this tender story.”

Further Reading:

The Miramichi Reader: Thank you Martha Vowles for sharing your “heart work” and your family story. I am sure it was a difficult write, but rest assured your readers will be helped with your words.

Atlantic Books (Staff Picks): Her memoir is told with humour and grace, perhaps more than she felt navigating calls to the police, trips to the hospital and one misplaced stepmother.

The Review: “When the whole episode of our lives was over, we said ‘you know there are a lot of good stories in this and a lot of people will probably be able to relate to them’,” Vowles says. “A lot of people are living through this and I just thought I had a good story to tell and I could tell it well – that was really the motivation for me to write the book.”

Thank you to Nevermore Press for sending me a copy of this book! Other books I’ve read from Nevermore (a very small, new publisher in Lunenburg Nova Scotia): Ananias, Broken Symmetry, and The Dome Chronicles.

20 thoughts on “Senior Management by Martha Vowles

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Such a clever title! This reminds me a little of Elizabeth Hay’s memoir of her struggle to care for her parents although she at least managed to persuade them to move nearer to her.

    • Naomi says:

      I still haven’t read that one – thank you for the reminder!
      This book also made me so thankful that my parents remain in good health.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I was going to bring up Hay’s memoir, but Susan beat me to it 🙂 I have read a lot of great books about dementia, fiction and non-, and memoirs about caring for elderly parents. (A few I’ll mention are Be With by Mike Barnes, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, What We Carry by Maya Lang, and An Extra Pair of Hands by Kate Mosse.) It’s an overwhelmingly difficult thing to imagine going through, but will be a reality for many of us and so it’s best to be prepared. A book that can fulfil that teaching role while also being entertaining is a rarity. I’d be interested in reading this one if I ever came across it. I like the line “as much planning as a royal wedding”!

    • Naomi says:

      I knew you’d have lots of good recommendations on this topic! There’s another one from Newfoundland that came out around the same time, published by Nimbus, called Senior Moment by Monica Graham.

  3. jes15382gmailcom says:

    I can relate to this on so many levels. It is quite a feat to write about a sad and serious subject with grace and humour. I’ll be adding this to my TBR pile.

  4. Marcie McCauley says:

    One of my favourite books about dementia is Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, The Wilderness, which presents the story from inside the mind of the person with dementia. The caregiving books seem worthwhile, but I wonder how much comfort they bring to others coping with this situation, if any.

    • Naomi says:

      I wonder that, too. I read this book through the (very fortunate) lens of someone who has never had to deal with dementia, so I can’t speak for anyone who has.
      We have The Wilderness at the library and have almost brought it home many times. One of these days I will!

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    The best thing I did when living through this situation was to undertake an online course called Understanding Dementia which is run through the Wicking Centre at the University of Tasmania.
    And the best advice I could give to anyone with parents of retirement age is to persuade them not to ‘retire to the sunshine or the golf course or whatever;’ but to retire somewhere within caring distance of the person most likely to look after them when they need it.

    • Naomi says:

      Good advice, Lisa! I’m sorry you had to figure it all out in the first place, though.
      I’m happy to say that my parents live nearby. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Right! And an odd way to describe a memoir about dementia, come to think of it. 1) I haven’t had to go through the experience myself, and 2) the author does a great job keeping things as light as she can for the reader.

  6. Anne Smith-Nochasak says:

    Every experience with dementia is unique, but there are similarities in the feelings generated. The realization that others understand, that others know our journey, is important. Thank you for this sensitive review. ‘Senior Moments’ sounds like an honest and compassionate telling; I, too, am adding it to my list.

  7. madamebibilophile says:

    This does sound excellent. My beloved great aunt had dementia, and while it was heart-breaking and exhausting, there were moments of laughter with her too. It’s good to hear the book captures some of that, although of course every situation is unique.

    • Naomi says:

      Thank you for sharing your own experience with your great aunt! I’m happy to hear there were moments of laughter to balance out the heart-break.

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I can see why this book would be humourous and sad at the same time, and yet it’s something that can be considered a plague of sorts – having to take care of your elderly parents is something many people will go through, so it would be a highly relatable book. I’d like to give this to my Dad to read now to help prepare him! haahah

    • Naomi says:

      True – it’s something most of won’t be able to avoid. One of the things this book highlights is that it doesn’t have to be all bad – it’s hard, but it can also be rewarding.

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