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Graphic Novels About Ageing and the Compassion of Family

Four graphic novels about ageing and the compassion of family—one nonfiction book about actually finding compassion in the long-term care system.

Book Cover Dying for Attention

When Susan MacLeod accompanied her 90-year-old mother through a labyrinthine long-term care system, it was a nine-year journey navigating a government within a heart in a system without compassion. Her family, much like the system, erected walls rather than opening arms. She found herself involuntarily placed at the pivot point between her frail, elderly mother's need for love and companionship, the system's inability to deliver, and her brother's indifference. She had also spent three years as a government spokesperson enthusiastically defending the very system she now experienced as brutally cold.

MacLeod's tone is defined by a gentle, self-effacing humour touched by exasperation for the absurdities and the newfound wisdom around expectations. Dying for Attention is the latest memoir in the graphic medicine field, shelved alongside Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? or Sarah Leavitt's celebrated Tangles—which MacLeod has included on the recommended reading list below.


Book Cover Bird in a Cage

Bird in a Cage, by Rebecca Roher

(Winner of the Doug Wright Award for Best Book in 2017)

Roher loved her grandmother and even the gentle line quality shows how much in this graphic memoir about Roher’s life with her grandmother as she went from independent, loving and inspirational to becoming a frightened nursing home resident.


Book Cover Tangles

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, by Sarah Leavitt

This book was my introduction to a graphic memoir dealing with difficult family issues when a parent declines; it was a huge inspiration for my own book. In middle age, Leavitt’s mother seeps away into Alzheimer’s disease, and the family rallies with bravery and humour through the muck of it all. The compassion is in every panel.


Book Cover The Unravelling

The Unravelling, by Clem Martini and Olivier Martini

Clem Martini watches in horror as his mother, the long-time loving caregiver for his brother who lives with mental illness, slips into dementia. Martini finds himself battling a health care system that seems to have no place or time for any of them. Like my book, this graphic memoir draws attention to the fact that even the most loving of family caregiving has limits, and the system is small help. Olivier’s drawings are a raw testimony to the pain.


Book Cover The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland, by Michel Rabagliati

(Winner of the Doug Wright Award for Best Book in 2013)

Unlike the other books in this list, this one is fiction yet described as “one-step-from-autobiography.” It explores a family facing the death of a beloved elder with cancer while taking an unflinching yet tender look at all the emotional upheaval and logistical challenges that must ensue.  


Book Cover Happily Ever Older

Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care, by Moira Welsh

While the other books on my list describe the anguish of losing a loved one while fighting a callous system, this Toronto Star reporter chose to turn her attention to places with glimmers of hope for change in offering compassionate care to the most vulnerable among us along with support for families. Saskatoon, it turns out, is a hotbed of compassionate care for the frail and elderly. An uplifting book for this sorrowful time.


Learn more about Dying for Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care.

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