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Book review
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End
  1. Neil Vickers
  1. Correspondence to Dr Neil Vickers, Department of English Language and Literature, King's College London WC2R 2LS, UK; neil.vickers{at}

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By Atul Gawande. Published by Profile Books in association with the Wellcome Collection, 2014, hardback, 288 pages. ISBN 978-1846685811, £15.99.

This book is a jeremiad against the way Western society views mortality in general and old age in particular. We have tried to deal with mortality by treating it as a medical problem. “The prevailing fantasy”, Atul Gawande writes, “is that we can be ageless”. We bundle elderly people into nursing homes because when it comes to our loved ones we think safety should trump autonomy at any cost (when it comes to ourselves it is the other way around). We pay remarkably little attention to the kind of social capital that is available in these places. Gawande observes that in the USA most nursing homes market their services according to what they think will please their residents’ families, not their residents. When his wife's grandmother, Alice Hobson, became unable to continue living on her own, her family moved her into a ‘senior-living complex’ that “involved the imposition of more structure and supervision than she'd ever had to deal with before”. After a fall, Alice was moved to a skilled nursing floor, where all privacy and control were gone. “She woke when they told her, bathed and dressed when they told her, ate when they told her. She lived with whomever they said she had to… She felt incarcerated, like she was in prison for being old.”

Nursing homes acquired this role willy-nilly. The expansion of hospital care in the postwar period created a need for step-down facilities into which patients could be discharged. Nursing homes were the preferred instrument. Gawande quotes the medical historian Bruce Vladek's comment that describing the history of nursing homes from the perspective of the elderly “is like describing the opening of the American West from the perspective of the mules”. They were sent there in their droves to give substance to the idea that …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.