On The Bright Side Shows Us What It Is To Be Old

“I have made two resolutions for 2015. The first is to make it to 2016, and the second is to get rid of one thing every day.” –Hendrik Groen

What did I read?

A somewhat funny, somewhat hopeful, somewhat scary account of the universally unavoidable tragedy. Written by an anonymous Dutch writer and translated by Hester Velmans, this book is, as the title suggests, the personal diary of Hendrik Groen. It is a sequel to ‘The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old’ which was a bestseller in the Netherlands. However, since it reads like a standalone book, despite not having read the previous book, I had no difficulty relating to the protagonist and his story. Published in January 2018, the book talks about the life of Hendrik Groen, a resident of a retirement home, in 2015.

How does the story age?

Mr. Groen is trying to live a fulfilling life despite the difficulties age usually presents. Restricted, partly by his aging body and partly by Mrs. Stelwagen – the stickler-for-rules-resident-home-director, he wants to live a dignified life, look good and whine less. His daily diary adds usefulness and value to his otherwise responsibility-free routine in a place where everything is taken care of for him. He is a member of the exclusive Old-But-Not-Dead Club – the envy of many non-member residents. The six club members go on culinary tours, wine tastings, out-of-town excursions and passionately engage in retirement home improvement by slyly getting themselves elected into the Resident’s Committee. Although distressed about the news of the retirement home’s possible closure, they are determined to exhibit their Old-But-Not-Dead spirit by fighting with a contained gusto and intellect.

Apart from dementia, mobility scooters, missing teeth, randomly materializing fruits and shrinking nursing homes, a large part of the book also deals with loss and bereavement from the perspective of people who are fast approaching their own ends. These are the people who are aware of the impending reality of death but want to ignore it or forget about it because not doing so would make life excruciatingly painful. When Mr. Groen loses Evert, his best friend, he goes through a period of melancholy and depression. Luckily, he heals and emerges saddened but strong and determined because his other friends have his back. When I was reading his entries about the incident, I couldn’t help but wonder, at that age, how many such Mr. Groens are fortunate enough to retain friends who are able to psychologically and physically care for another person.

Learnings and musings…

“You often read about groups of old people looking for new forms of communal living, in search of, well… yes: comfort, control, and companionship. Only, those old people aren’t in their late eighties; they are energetic sixty- or seventy-year-olds with plenty of ideas and plenty of money.” – Hendrik Groen

This book showed me what it means to be old. An eighty-five-year-old is not the kind of old we are used to seeing in movies. He is not the hero who after a few tough years, rises from the ashes like a phoenix and takes charge of his life in a jiffy. No, he is the hero who, pushes himself to look well-groomed despite some dribbling and who rides his mobility scooter with élan.

A person at that age, with a weakening body and a slowing memory, has good reason to constantly complain or give up. That is why a lot of residents in Mr. Groen’s retirement home crib about every ailment and every cloud in the sky. Mr. Groen and his club members aren’t immune to the complaint-bug but they take great pains to avoid wallowing in self-pity. It takes the patience and willpower of a hero to prevent oneself from doing something which is as natural as some well-earned whining in old age.

Mr. Groen’s diary – Worth the read?

On The Bright Side, is an easy literary read, and in most parts, is quite engaging. However, it is not a pleasant book if you or your dear ones are approaching old age, or if you are simply afraid of old age. In places, it is very harsh and vivid. Despite its funny tone and humorous bits, it could keep you up at night with worry about your own future.

The narrator and the protagonist, Mr. Groen, like everyone else, is far from flawless. He isn’t always agreeable or polite. He doesn’t like several of his fellow residents. Although he sympathizes with refugees, he is a tad racist in his disliking of Chinese tourists (Indian tourists too?). And his best friend is a geriatric “bad-boy” who speaks sans filter and is unnecessarily rude on perfectly harmless occasions.

But, you don’t have to like him to like the book or relate to it. Although it’s the diary of Mr. Hendrik Groen from the Netherlands, it is, in many ways, the story of several other Old-But-Not-Dead souls. Besides, however differently we spend our last few years, some things would be the same for all of us.

“If you pinch aging skin between your fingers, it sticks together and stands up.” – Hendrik Groen

Author(s): Hendrik Groen
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Release: January 2018
Genre: Fiction/Contemporary
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