A renowned psychiatrist and anthropologist mixes a memoir of his adolescence and professional training with a detailed account of his decade as a caregiver for his wife, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in 1941, Kleinman (Anthropology/Harvard Univ.; What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger, 2006, etc.) gravitated toward medical studies after a difficult family life and a streak of “waywardness.” He relates his love-at-first-sight relationship with Joan. They met in college; she was two years his elder, from a more stable family and a worldlier background. For many years, she placed her professional desires in the background to care for the home, rear their children, take the lead in developing their friendships, and make day-to-day living as easy as possible for her workaholic husband. His dual interest in both medical care and anthropology led them around the globe, with emphases on China and Taiwan. Eventually, Joan also developed expertise in Chinese language and culture. Given her sterling example of winning trust from almost every person who entered her life, Kleinman developed deep empathy and excellent listening skills, making him a holistic practitioner who understood the intricate connections among mind, body, and the stresses of the larger culture. When Joan started failing physically before age 60 due to what finally got diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s, Kleinman felt compelled to learn how to serve as a caregiver within what he came to understand as a dysfunctional American health care bureaucracy. In addition to providing a detailed account of Joan’s decline and death during 2011, he also offers case studies of his nonfamily patients. As he clearly shows, his patients informed his care of Joan, and his arduous caregiving for Joan informed his medical practice. The second half of the book, focused on the author’s dedication to his wife’s care, is more compelling than the scattered, often repetitious first half.
An uneven but poignant memoir that will be useful to caregivers of all ages and occupations.