Going to Print With Susan MacLeod


Going to Print with Susan MacLeod

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new awareness to the challenges facing long-term care staff and residents. The failings and limitations of these bureaucratic systems are often invisible to the general public—until they have to navigate it themselves. In Dying for Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Long-Term Care, Halifax artist Susan MacLeod offers an unflinching and darkly humorous look at the reality of long-term care and its impact on patients, families, and healthcare workers.

4 Questions with Susan MacLeod

1. Why did you decide to create a graphic memoir about your mother’s journey through the long-term care system?
I was quite appalled by the quality of care my mother received during her nine years in various levels of long term care. I felt there should be more awareness of what people go through there and how it’s system-centered, not resident-centered, plus being woefully underfunded and therefore lacking in compassion generally. (Although while I was creating the book, COVID certainly shone a glaring light on all that I had seen and worse!) During all the time Mom was in care, not one caregiver knew her as a person, her moods, her likes, her dislikes, her personality. How can it be a “home” if people don’t know you on a personal level?

So, being a professional communicator, I wanted to tell people what I discovered! But also being a professional communicator, I was sick of writing and in particular sick of writing things people never read. I’ve drawn as soon as I could hold a pencil, so I thought creating a graphic memoir about my experiences with long term care seemed like a worthwhile project and an excellent challenge for myself. I knew nothing about cartooning! I also thought that because this is such a fraught topic – old family wounds resurfacing, the end of life, and ageism, I felt it had to be humorous or else it’s simply too painful to read.

A friend of mine was entering the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction at University of King’s College and I thought this would be a good way for me to start. Luckily I was accepted and it was everything I needed and more. They even provided a cartoon mentor for me in addition to a story-narrative mentor. It’s located in Halifax so that made it more affordable for me as well.

2. How are you feeling now that the story is off to the printer? Are you excited? Nervous? Both? Why?
Yes, I’m excited and nervous and everything in between. I think it’s a tremendous achievement for someone of my age but I also know I couldn’t have done without a lot of support from the MFA program, my immediate family especially my husband, and all the contacts I’d made in healthcare during my professional life. I was also validated by receiving a Canada Council grant to help finish the book – validated by a jury of my peers! At the same time, I know it’s not a perfect piece of work but I know I’ve done the very best I could and from now on, the reception it receives is beyond my control. I strive to accept the feedback with equanimity. ????

3. How did your other project, The Humans of Saint Vincent’s, inspire and inform this work, and vice versa?  
I started Humans of Saint Vincent’s while Mom was in care in another facility. One of the reasons I started it was because I grew to know the residents in Mom’s Home as people, not old people, just ordinary, everyday people with all the grit, glory, humour and every other human characteristic that younger people have. I wanted to show that in as an unfiltered way as possible so I simply started sketching them at Saint Vincent’s where I volunteered and had the trust of the management. So that project, which I hope to resume now that the COVID restrictions are relaxing in long term care, is analogous to the book, springing from a similar impulse. These people are people, people!

4. What do you hope people take away from this book?
I hope people will understand there’s nothing to fear from the very old. As we all age, our health and care needs may change but our human needs don’t. We all need a feeling of belonging, of mattering, of having a purpose, of being seen beyond any outside prejudices. To me, this is the basis of being a human. I’m reading a book called 7 and 1/2 Lessons About the Brain and the latest in neuroscience shows it’s difficult for our human brains to understand people who are very different from ourselves and our communities. So, it’s not easy for our brains to overcome our prejudices – it takes energy. But I think we each need to work on that – the 7 1/2 book recommends we try understanding an opposing point of view for ten minutes each day as practice. It seems to me the very old have been shunted to the side for too long, people tend to think they’re not human and worthy of derision. With luck, we’ll each grow old. Let’s acknowledge that by acknowledging the humanity of those already very old. The very old are the same as we are in every way except age and its attendant health concerns. Down with ageism!

Dying for Attention is now available for purchase!