Florida is the retiree mecca of the United States. As residents, we are used to conversations that begin with, “You live in Florida? My parents retired there…”. Yes, we know. Everyone’s parents retire here. My family was no different; we migrated after my grandparents retired here in the 1970s.
The reason I bring up the age and retirement demographic of the area is that it also means there are many people here in their forties, fifties, and sixties who are caregivers for older relatives. Dinner parties are fraught with stories of relatives’ broken hips, the anger that comes with loss of mobility, horrible driving, the forgetfulness and paranoia that comes with dementia, and most often – the cruelty that is heaped upon caregivers who once had close relationships with the person in their care. Plans are often postponed because friends have to deal with a medical or housing emergency that comes up for their elderly parent.
I wrote The Risk of a Fall, a novel, after a particularly difficult few years with my grandmother. She was in her late 90s, independent to a fault, and morphing from the spunky conversationalist she’d once been into the bitter, spiteful, distrusting, and paranoid person she became in her last few years.
The Risk of the Fall is a fictional amalgamation of thoughts, feelings, and situations that either happened in my own family or that I’d heard in stories from other people. The book is a bit unique in that it is written from two characters’ perspectives (actually three, as a third character narrates a few chapters). It first occurred to me to write it that way after I’d had a uniquely difficult conversation with my grandmother about her living arrangements.
To put it bluntly: she was pissed off. And I was on the receiving end of that ire. At first I was fuming, then hurt. Then I tried looking at it from her point of view. She’d lived to be in her late nineties, had been a widow taking care of her own affairs for the last twenty years, and now she was having to share decision-making about her life with a granddaughter sixty years her junior. I realized how powerless she must have felt, and that led me to the exercise of trying to view everything from her point of view.
Over time, I listened to caretakers in tears because of the awful things their elderly parents had said to them; I listened to seniors (especially in the few years when I took my dog to visit nursing homes as a therapy pet) complain about their families “doing everything wrong” and for treating them “like a child”.
Out of those experiences came the idea to write The Risk of a Fall from the perspective of both the caregiver and the person in need of care. In doing so, I think I was able to capture the frustration felt on both sides.
I have been told by caregivers and healthcare professionals that when they read The Risk of a Fall, it makes them feel like someone out there understands how hard they are trying and how soul-crushingly tired they feel. But it also gives them a bit of an “a-ha” moment when they stop and think of how their elderly relative or patient might be viewing the same situations.
The multi-view perspective the reader has of the family in The Risk of a Fall shows how desperately hard everyone tries, how much love is involved, and ultimately, how diseases that come with aging can be explosively destructive forces that leave no one unscathed.