The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old – Hendrik Groen

diary groenThis is a delightful little book, chronicling the daily life of an octogenarian dutch man living in an old age home on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

The ageing population in the West (and Japan) has been widely commented upon. More often than not, it is seen as a problem that needs to be solved. You have economists looking at it from the perspective of pension, taxation and retirement age. You have social commentators like Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) looking at it from the perspective of end-of-life care. You also have political commentators thinking about the demographic shift and its implications on elections and policy, say the Brexit referendum result. You have academics like Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott looking at complete realignment of all life norms to accommodate “The 100-Year Life”.

This is the first time I have come across a well written book from the perspective of the aged. Hendrik Groen lives in an age old home which seems like a good blend of independence (he has his own apartment) and assisted living (all his meals, housekeeping etc are taken care off). The book takes the form of daily diary entries that Hendrik makes for an entire year. Through this he describes his feelings about his co-habitants, friends, politics, medicine, euthanasia, money and everything else under the sun. For most part the entries are laugh-out-loud hilarious, as pointed out by my daughter and wife throughout the last week. But they are also tragic and sad. The sheer helplessness even in the face of the most trivial tasks like getting into a lift or putting on television is described in detail. The beauty is how the author manages to extract laughter amidst fairly regular descriptions of disease, disability and death.

The characters in the form of Hendrik’s friends are well developed and memorable. Their little circle of 6 rebels – all more than 80 years of age – forms an aptly named social club: Old-But-Not-Dead club. The exploits of the club as they organize simple social events like a visit to the museum or a wine tasting afternoon are delightfully diarized. The club though is exclusive and they are not accepting any new members – much to the envy of fellow residents!

Hendrik’s friendship with Evert – an often uncouth and politically incorrect old man – is a source of a lot of the laughs. Hendrik’s barely secret flirtation with Eefje seems to be getting reciprocated; he wishes, rather sadly, he had met her fifty years back. Hendrik’s efforts to support Graetje as she slowly fades into dementia are heart-warming.

The book is also very thought-provoking. It brings out the rather cliched, rhetorical question: what is most important in one’s life? Like all cliched, rhetorical questions though – this one does not have easy answers either.

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