Insightful novels depict realities of ageing


HEART BEAT:Reading lists for medical students on ageing are largely composed of novels, writes Desmond O'Neill 

FINDING TIME for reading is one of the great pleasures of summer holidays. Whether sheltering from the heat along a Mediterranean shore, or from Irish rain, the change of tempo and scene allow for some memorable reading experiences. Whether revisiting old classics, overdosing on the brain candy of thrillers, or discovering new writers, that summer read has a way of lodging in the brain in a way that reading during the rest of the year can never match.

Our choices are often random: the mad rush to clear the decks at work before the holiday starts, and the chaos of packing means that we may start our search for our holiday book at the airport bookshop, or the limited racks at the resort or holiday village.

The artfully constructed lists of summer reading in the features pages of newspapers, often seem light years removed from the harum-scarum reality of choosing summer reads.

So, finding a book that is both a pleasure to read, but also stimulating, is one of the minor challenges of the holiday season.

Why not consider a themed approach to summer reading? One of the great, yet unheralded, developments in writing in the past decade has been the embracing of old age as a major theme by authors. Indeed, what is particularly fascinating is that authors seem to have a better grasp of the complexities and opportunities of later life, even allowing for its vicissitudes, than is portrayed in the popular media.

Even with memory problems of later life and Alzheimer's disease, writers seem to understand better than most that life goes on, and that rather than collapse under such challenges, those affected respond with resolve, humour and flexibility, despite unsupportive systems.

For our own department, the extent to which novelists catch the reality of the new ageing means that our reading list for the medical students is largely composed of novels.

This is by no means an exercise in unremitting worthiness. The lively, dark and often savage explorations of sexuality of older men by Philip Roth in The Human Stainare an antidote to perceptions of an asexual old age, and anticipates recent research which finds increasing levels of sexual activity in later life. A more gentle and self-mocking reflection is found in John Mortimer's The Summer of a Dormouse. One of the fascinating themes of these novels is the difficulties of adult children in accepting their parents' sexuality.

These themes have been developed further to include elder abuse, as exemplified in the witty and touching A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraineby Maria Lewinska. A cracking read, and beneath the humour, will ring true for adult children who are trying to figure out how to deal with each other, and a parent who doesn't wish for their input, when things go wrong in later life.

A common theme, and one again where authors (truly the stormtroopers of consciousness) have anticipated the scientific theory, is that of life course and reminiscence, and how later life is a time when we can begin to get a true perspective of our lives.

The minor classic, Embers, by Sandor Marai, is an astonishingly good read, bringing together two estranged friends at the end of their lives, and combining poignancy with vitality, while completely avoiding sentimentality.

It is in the area of memory problems that authors display to most telling effect the preservation of humanity and possibilities that remain. In so doing, they help to dispel some fears of the general public, who often seem to perceive an overly stark separation between "normal" and "Alzheimer's", whereas we will all deal, and adapt, to a lesser or greater extent with a range of disabilities as we age. In Barbara Kingsolver's beautifully readable Animal Dreams, one of the main protagonists is a family doctor with early Alzheimer's disease. Not only does he still practise medicine, but ongoing relationships and human warmth are acutely sketched, with telling insights into his anxieties about memory loss.

Other explorations include the sentimental The Notebook(Nicholas Sparks), which has startling insight into preservation of love and affection in Alzheimer's disease, Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughterand Jonathan Frantzen's untidy but compelling The Corrections.

Perhaps the most original and remarkable read is Mordecai Richler's last novel, Barney's Version. A bawdy and raucous book, it is the purported autobiography of a dissolute film producer who is developing dementia. Without a trace of sentimentality, it catches that spark of human resistance and adaptation which resists, fights and shapes to our changing destiny.

So, if under a meridional pine tree, savouring the resinous fragrance unleashed by the summer heat, or sheltering from yet another squally shower along the Irish coast, you manage to savour and enjoy one of these books, it may well also be that several months hence you may find yourself reflecting on some of the themes therein.

With any luck you may have a more balanced, even more optimistic, view of ageing and later life: but you might also wonder about whether your society has also caught up with our artists in meeting the opportunities and challenges of ageing.

In particular, you might also ask whether we have risen to the challenge of Alzheimer's disease, where those affected do not want pity, but rather the knowledge that they will have supportive structures for assessment, support and care that will allow them to continue living, loving and relating. That these supports are wanting to a very major extent in Ireland is an ongoing cause for reflection.

Prof Desmond O'Neill is director of Aois agus Eolas, the Centre for Ageing, Neuroscience and the Humanities, at Tallaght Hospital