The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting


In this beautiful book, Elizabeth Cohen gives us a true and moving portrait of the love and courage of a family.

Elizabeth, a member of the “sandwich generation”—people caught in the middle, simultaneously caring for their children and for their aging parents—is the mother of Ava and the daughter of Daddy, and responsible for both. Hers is the story of a woman’s struggle to keep her family whole, to raise her child in a house of laughter and ...

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In this beautiful book, Elizabeth Cohen gives us a true and moving portrait of the love and courage of a family.

Elizabeth, a member of the “sandwich generation”—people caught in the middle, simultaneously caring for their children and for their aging parents—is the mother of Ava and the daughter of Daddy, and responsible for both. Hers is the story of a woman’s struggle to keep her family whole, to raise her child in a house of laughter and love, and to keep her father from hiding the house keys in his slippers.

In this story full of everyday triumphs, first steps, and elderly confusion, Ava, a baby, finds each new picture, each new word, each new song, something to learn greedily, joyfully. Daddy is a man in his twilight years for whom time moves slowly and lessons are not learned but quietly, frustratingly forgotten. Elizabeth, a suddenly single mother with a career and a mortgage and a hamper of laundry, finds her world spiraling out of control yet full of beauty. Faced with mounting disasters, she chooses to confront life head-on.

Written in wonderful prose and imbued with an unquenchable spirit, The House on Beartown Road takes us on a journey through the remarkable landscape that is family.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A deeply moving and important book for our time, The House on Beartown Road adds an unforgettable chapter to our understanding of life, family, and Alzheimer's disease. A writer for an upstate New York newspaper, Elizabeth Cohen was living out her fantasy, snug in a cozy home in the quiet countryside with her newborn daughter and her husband, a talented artist. Life was good. Then came a call from her sister, who had been living with their parents. "Please," she pleads. "Take Daddy."

Daddy, it turns out, has Alzheimer's. Formerly a heralded economist and professor, he now has difficulty remembering how to use a phone. Elizabeth agrees to the new arrangement, but two months after her father arrives, her husband leaves. So begins the winter of her life.

For several months, Elizabeth holds down her job while caring for both her baby and her father -- despite blizzards, stomach bugs, and a house falling into disrepair. She watches, amazed, as her daughter learns things and her father forgets them. Elizabeth tries to ward off his illness with foods and mental games, but her father looks at her earnestly and says, "I am not sure who you are, or why you have been so nice to me." Cohen's editor, Katie Hall, has said that The House on Beartown Road might be the best book she's ever edited. It's not hard to understand why. (Spring 2003 Selection)

The New York Times
Instead of molding all this into 270 pages of scathing retribution or bitter self-pity, Cohen has written a frank, funny and unexploitative memoir. She is not shy about detailing her father's Alzheimer's, but she's equally intent on illuminating his dignity. Indeed, the disease's cruel habit of eating away at memory made her determined to understand better the man who now depends on her for his existence. And though she doesn't glamorize Alzheimer's, she's not blind to its occasional heartbreaking beauty. — Maggie Jones
The Washington Post
Cohen's perspective on this painful experience is clearsighted, and her choices were guided by love. Her memoir is a potent articulation of the ties between one generation and the next. — Jane Ciabattari
Publishers Weekly
In this moving yet unsentimental memoir, Cohen chronicles the year her aging father, Sanford, suffering from mid-to-late-stage Alzheimer's, came to live with her and her baby, Ava, in a New York State farmhouse. The three endure a cold winter, Ava's teething and the ravages of Alzheimer's. Sanford, a retired economics professor, retains his physical health while his mind deteriorates, a process Cohen-a Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin reporter-describes in detail and with compassion, even as he loses the ability to know her ("I am having something of a blackout. Perhaps you can remind me who you are?"). Ava learns to walk and talk while Sanford forgets how to climb stairs and struggles with his vocabulary (when he can't remember the word "water," he substitutes "the liquid substance from the spigot"). "Daddy walks around now this way, dropping pieces of language behind him, the baby following, picking them up." Naturally, life's difficult. Sanford misses his wife, who lives with Cohen's sister on the other side of the country; Cohen's husband abandons them early on and she struggles to find help from local social services. Even though "each day arches numerous times toward disaster," the trio survives, even thrives. Cohen takes pleasure in her daughter, outings in parks, friends' and neighbors' generosity and the "memory project"-her attempt to catalogue her father's stories from his childhood, war years in the Pacific and teaching career. With splashes of humor and occasional-and understandable-self-pity, Cohen's fluid prose lifts her forceful story to a higher level, making it a tribute to her father and her family. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cohen suddenly finds herself part of the "sandwich generation"-adults caring for their aging parents while simultaneously rearing their own children. Her situation is even more complicated: as an older mother, her own child is only nine months old at the time her father, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, comes to live with her family and shortly after that her husband leaves. Cohen is a journalist in the nearby town, but the old farmhouse way out in the country, on Beartown Road, suddenly becomes more of a liability than a luxury. The author crafts a workable albeit chaotic environment out of the growing vocabulary and motor skills of her daughter, Ava, and the faltering neurological network and failing memory that is replacing the economics professor she calls Dad. What should be a terribly sad story becomes a testament to the power of familial love and responsibility. The many tragedies of Alzheimer's are offset by Cohen's indomitable spirit and a few triumphs along the way, all related in her eloquent prose. Bernadette Dunne is masterful at moving among Elizabeth, Ava, and Sanford Cohen; her reading elevates this memoir to a superlative listening experience. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Lyrical, gripping tale of the year Cohen's life went to hell. One minute she was living an idyll, lazing through her days as a rural-upstate New York reporter and nights in a secluded farmhouse with a loving husband and infant daughter; the next, her Alzheimer's-afflicted father had moved in, her husband had moved across the country to shack up with an 18-year-old, and winter buried the house in snow. Cohen and her youthful husband had been a Manhattan couple with an active social life. After the move to Beartown Road and Dad's appearance, her city sophistication was entirely irrelevant in the endless battle to keep her father and daughter fed, dry, and safe, to get through the winter without freezing to death (apparently a surprisingly easy thing to do in a civilized North American town), neglecting her family, or losing her job. Cohen takes what could be a self-indulgent sob story and turns it into the stuff of high adventure. When she lies to her father about the eldercare group he attends, telling him he is the group's teacher, the reader prays the fiction will hold so that she can go to work secure in the knowledge that he won’t accidentally burn the house down while smoking unattended. When neighbors plow her driveway after big snowfalls, we’re swept with gratitude for the author’s sake. Cohen frames the whole of her messy, absorbing year in the framework of how we learn and forget. As her daughter gains words, her father loses them. As her daughter acquires motor skills, her father stumbles. As she describes the waxing of her daughter's personality and the waning of her father's, the fact he cannot remember her name or learn her daughter's, Cohen manages never to resort tosentimentality. The adventure and peril of everyday living captured in language that's light, beautiful, and razor-sharp. Agent: David Black
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786187850
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 6 CDs
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 6.46 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth Cohen
With the selection of The House on Beartown Road -- a poignant chronicle of her experience caring for both an infant child and a father with Alzheimer's -- as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, journalist Elizabeth Cohen is poised to become a writer that will long be remembered in readers' hearts.

Good To Know

In her interview with Barnes &, Cohen shared some fun facts about herself:

"My first job was at a gas station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was fired for reading. I once worked at an elite bookstore in SoHo. Was fired for reading. My best job ever was as editorial assistant to Anna Quindlen. She would call me every couple days and ask me to find out the lifespan of the average gorilla, the gross national product of Thailand, or the phone number for the Dalai Lama. Stuff like that. I am serious. That was actually my job. I lucked out."

"I used to have hobbies like skiing and hiking. These days I play with my daughter, Ava. We go to the park. We read. We go swimming together on Saturdays. She is the great joy in my life now. I bought a kayak two years ago. I'd like to use it someday."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt
    2. Hometown:
      Port Crane, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 13, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Indianapolis, Indiana
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of New Mexico, 1983; M.A., Temple University, 1987; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1990

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Dream Detection

Sometimes at night I lie awake for hours beside my baby daughter, Ava, cupping her head in my hand. Maybe I am imagining, but sometimes I swear I can feel it: I can feel her dreaming. The sensation upon my fingers is less than a vibration but more than stillness. A something-in-between-nothing-and-something, vague but true. I imagine I can feel my daughter's mind becoming.

Touching her head in this way comes naturally to me, an instinctual rather than a conscious act. I do it because I am afraid of our circumstances as winter approaches. And because I understand now how delicate a mind is, the many ways in which it can fail a person.

When I was a child, whenever I felt upset, overwhelmed, unsure of my actions or that my thoughts were racing too fast to catch them, I developed the habit of placing my hand on my forehead. It has a calming effect, as though in doing so I can actually slow my mind down, fully possess it, or redirect its course. Just as I touch my daughter's head, at times when I wake from a particularly vivid dream, I have found myself cupping my own forehead. My hand on my head seems to help me better recall my dreams, as if it is an umbilicus from the sleeping world to waking, a bridge. Just when I feel my daughter's dreams begin to swirl inside my palms, she often twitches or smiles or mumbles things that are not quite words but that, judging from her expressions, are sometimes serious, sometimes amusing. That is my favorite thing -- when she laughs in her sleep. Never at any time -- not when I first held her, wet and new, not when I comforted her when she was teething, not even when I fed her by breast -- have I felt as close to my daughter as I do when I touch her dreams.

Down the hall from where we sleep lies my father. I know when he dreams, too, because in his sleep he shouts and whimpers, declares and rages. He begs for my mother. He pleads. He shakes the bed. His dreaming is very busy. Yet listening to him I have this thought -- that if I were to place a hand upon his forehead I would not feel a thing. There would be no subtle almost-vibration, no activity within that brain that once graded reams of undergraduate term papers, lectured about abuses of migratory laborers, charted trends in factory employment and union membership. That mind that once won him a fellowship to Harvard to study industrial relations would be startlingly silent. I fear that touching the forehead of my father, a professor emeritus of economics, I would feel nothing. Rather than signs of a mind's activity, his dreams seem like echoes of a past intelligence. His voice in the night is a habit, a reflex. He calls out because he can. That is all.

The baby dreaming beside me is acquiring all the cognitive processes that will guide her in life. My father has Alzheimer's disease; time, place, people, and events all blur and dissemble for him. It has stolen almost all of his connections to life.

Just as I have considered the mechanics of dreaming, I have begun to think about thinking. Thinking about thought is a peculiar experience. When it is someone else's thought it is mostly conjecture, because no person is privy to that most private space of another. When it is my own thought it is confusing and sometimes scary. I can detect both the strengths and the flaws in my mind, its laziness and gaps and the great trough of forgetting that opens between certain events. And it occurs to me, when I sense this canyon of lost memories snaking through my life, that I hate forgetting. I hate it more than anything -- sorrow, indifference, hunger, cold. It takes and takes, a robber who absconds with ideas, names, dates, prized moments, song lyrics, stanzas of poetry, recipes, the punch lines of jokes. It steals what a person truly owns; it takes the life he has lived, leaving him stranded on the island of the present.

Forgetting is my only real enemy. And it is taking my father in fits and starts, in chunks and in slices, stretching out the pain of loss unbearably.

But forgetting lives in our house now like another person. It is always hungry. I go into my husband Shane's painting studio, where the canvases sing with color and seem so immune to erasure, and I wonder -- when will it encroach here? Someday will he forget the way cadmium meshes with black, the lovely moment of approaching a freshly gessoed canvas, the way he spits on his fingers and rubs the chalky color from pastels into a muted shadow on a face?

I watch myself forgetting to pick up toothpaste when I am shopping, forgetting to give my father his medication, forgetting the date, forgetting the capital of Tennessee. It is insidious.

My daughter does not yet know enough to forget. Each thing in her mind is a bright new resident, firmly affixed and special. She remembers where the cookies are, gets excited when I approach the jar. She points at a carton of chocolate milk on the left side of the refrigerator behind the juice. She is just beginning to approach speech; still, she communicates remembering very well. While we are surprised that she can remember so much, she is nonchalant. She has been alive under a year, yet she acts like she has always known these things. For Ava, remembering comes naturally, like a sneeze, a hiccup.

She is learning so fast now that I cannot keep up with all she knows. She is learning her body. Not with words, but locations. Say "nose," and sometimes, I swear, she points at her nose. Say "tongue" and out hers pops. Did I teach her the location of her tongue? When did I do that? I rack my brain for a recollection of an instance of tongue instruction, but none comes to me. If I did, I have forgotten it. But she hasn't.

One recent night as I lay beside her, watching her laugh at some secret amusement as she slept, my father walked into the room. He saw me there, touching her head while her subconscious laughter pealed forth. I waited for him to comment, to say something about her laughter, about my hand on her laughter, about her beauty, there on the pillow, a mass of dark curls spread out around her face. Instead he seemed embarrassed, as though he had walked in on a private moment. As though her joyful sleep were something intimate he should not have seen.

"Look," I said, inviting him into her beauty. "She laughs in her sleep."

He walked over and glanced down, looking at Ava laughing and sleeping.

"You know," he said, considering her, "I was thinking about that same thing recently. That funny thing. But now it's gone."


Chapter 2

Not so long ago we were just a family, like any family. We lived in New York City. I worked as a reporter at the New York Post and also wrote stories, essays, articles, and the occasional poem at a desk in the corner of our bedroom while Shane painted in the living room. The day our daughter was born, we walked the four blocks from our apartment to the hospital. Twenty-four hours later we returned, rolling Ava along in a stroller. One day we were two people, the next day we became three.

The following summer we strapped our daughter into a Snugli and took her to street fairs, parks, Indian restaurants, and an island off Greece. We saw all the other families, with their new babies, looking like us, doing what we were doing. Being a family like other families, doing family sorts of things, was a good feeling. It felt right.

I met my husband, Shane, in 1995 in the tiny town of Gallup, New Mexico, where I was living then. I first saw him at a party. It was instant. We moved toward each other and then stayed there. It was the easiest thing. There wasn't even anything resembling a date. We met and then were. It didn't require discussion.

I fell in love with his sense of humor, the whimsy and intelligence in his paintings that filled a loft in a storefront on the main street of town. I fell in love with the smell of his shirts. It was weeks before we revealed even the most introductory information about each other. By then, it was too late.

Shane is fifteen years younger and, by society's standards, entirely inappropriate for me. When we met, he'd assumed I was younger and I thought he was older. We liked the same music, food, books, and movies. We both liked to get in our cars and drive, straight into nowhere, without destinations or maps. We ventured into forests and canyons, through Navajo country, where the wind sculpts rocks into whimsical forms, and onto the Zuni reservation, where the broken hills are striped red and white with mineral deposits. Within two years we were married and moving to New York City to pursue our careers in writing and art.

But when we had our daughter, Ava, two years later, it was suddenly important to us to get back to a rural place, like the one where we had met. New Mexico seemed too far from New York City, so we started driving on weekends through New York State, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey, looking for newspapers where I could work and real estate where we might live. When we saw the old farmhouse on Beartown Road, near a medium-size paper that had offered me a job, it seemed destined.

It is a small white house, floating on the top of a hill in a sea of lilacs and hydrangea. It has creaking floors and leaded windows and a generous porch with two chairs on which we imagined spending long, lazy summer afternoons, drinking iced tea and reading novels. It has a tree for a swing, two more trees perfectly spaced for a hammock, and a huge loft space for Shane's paintings. It is a simple house, farmer-built. There is nothing fancy about it, but it is solid -- a place where you think things will go right, people will love each other, and children will grow up happy and healthy. From the minute we walked through the rooms we knew it was for us. All of us.

Our family seemed to increase every day. The cats came to us on their own as cats do. First came Lulu, found in the rain in Manhattan before we moved; then, six months after we arrived came Milo, a long noodle of a cat who slips out of your arms as though oiled, a gift from Samme Chittum, a fellow journalist and friend, who had made the same career trek from Manhattan to the Binghamton paper; Twyla -- later to be nicknamed Twy-twy -- turned up one day on our front porch. Soon after came the dalmatians, Samo and Franny -- a sister and brother we bought from the Shumachers, breeders down on Tunnel Road.

Life seemed idyllic. The world of my own childhood, of nightly slipping between clean, sun-dried sheets, having dined on meals made from my mother's favorite recipes, pressed between pages of her dog-eared copy of The Joy of Cooking, was repeating, in my life.

Night was a time of dark sugar, safe and sweet. My family curled inside it, myself between the warm bodies of my husband and baby, my father's shredding brain over a thousand miles away. From time to time, as we slept, someone would roll over and toss an appendage somewhere over someone else. My husband's arm would wrap around my waist. The baby would fling a leg over my arm. She tucks her toes beneath me the way I used to tuck my toes beneath my sister when we were small and slept together. And she breathes like my husband, in short, irregular snores.

I didn't know how sacred that sweetness was, nor fathom how quickly it could disappear. I had no clue how disaster could smack into a life and change everything.

But it did. It hit, and night and everything else would never be the same.

Daddy came to live with us in the sticky heat of August. I got the phone call from my sister, Melanie, late in the summer of 1999. Earlier that year Melanie had moved with her two children into my parents' home in New Mexico. It had become clear by then that something was wrong. My father was not himself. And my mother, whose health was failing, was not able to care for him alone.

We'd noticed the creeping changes in him for some time. After several fender benders, and fearful of his declining driving skills, my sister and mother convinced him to turn over the car keys in 1997. It was a battle. He got really mad, insisting that after fifty years he was a better driver than ever. But in the end he acquiesced. I believe he recognized that he had become dangerous behind the wheel. No one dared say the word. We circumvented it daily, the way you might avoid a homeless person raging in the subway. We mastered the euphemism. We said things like "mixed up," "confused," "spacey," and finally "unsettled" to describe him during those nights he walked from room to room, opening and shutting closet doors.

The house my mother had always kept antiseptic-clean and pin-neat had begun to swirl in papers and opened files. Clothes were strewn over the floor, drawers left open. Things were getting lost more and more frequently. His yellow urine stains could not be scrubbed out of the carpets near the bathroom, no matter what my mother tried. Caring for both of them, each with their own needs, was more than my sister -- a single working mother -- could handle.

What's more, my sister told me Mommy and Daddy were fighting -- horrible shouting matches that ended with my mother in tears. "I don't want my kids to hear it," my sister said. "It's awful, she screams at him and throws things. Then he gets mad and yells back. She keeps calling him stupid." That was the first moment his disease became real to me. Before my sister told me about my parents' fights, it had been fuzzy -- an if, a perhaps. In an instant it grew a shape. It became a thing, but a terribly unknowable thing, like a black hole in space. My parents were not the sort of parents who fought. They'd always agreed on everything. That my mother would ever call my father stupid was inconceivable.

They say black holes are invisible but that people know they are there because of their effect on the things around them, the way they chew up stars and galaxies. I knew Daddy's disease was real because of the way it was consuming our world, the people around him. My mother.

She had always worshiped my father and, in fact, had tended the hearth of his intelligence almost professionally for decades. She had typed the books he wrote. She filed, she annotated, she whited-out. She edited, rubber-banded, and paper-clipped his intelligence. She gave up her own jobs, as an administrator, a grant writer, a teacher, a potter, to be his assistant, his behind-the-scenes helper. This change in him, from brilliant to befuddled, defied everything she knew. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" she yelled at him several times a day.

Stupid was a strange word to hear from our mother. We were not stupid. We didn't know people who were stupid. We didn't call people stupid. It was foreign, a piece of linguistic shrapnel that had no place in our lives.

Our house had always been an intelligent house. Our family walked around inside it knowing things. The way some families play touch football or ski together, we exchanged facts. My mother's passion was crossword puzzles. From time to time she'd shout out queries, like "What was Jean Valjean's resort?"

From another room in the house, two or three of us would yell back, "Sewer."

"Creator of Mrs. Sarah Battle?"


"No, that doesn't work."

"Elia," Daddy would say. "His pen name."

He knew the hard ones. That she had taken to calling him stupid was unfathomable.

"I can't take care of both of them," my sister said in that fateful phone call.

"Please, please," she asked, "take Daddy."

Take Daddy.

It was a request that I, like so many adult children, had never anticipated -- to "take" one's parent. Especially my father, my fiercely opinionated, intellectual father. My parents are not the sort of people one imagines taking anywhere. They took themselves places. To London and New York in theater season; to Russia, Sweden, and Norway on cruises; to St. Croix in the winter; to the annual economic conventions where my father would give presentations before the leaders of multinational corporations. They took themselves to their favorite places, like the Golden Nugget, in downtown Las Vegas, where Daddy played low-stakes blackjack all night and my mother played the nickel slot machines. My parents went there every year, sometimes more than once. They knew the name of the chef.

In fact, in my experience, it was my father who took us places. He took the whole family on his sabbaticals and teaching assignments abroad. We'd lived in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico. He'd taken me to Israel with him, to a conference on international labor relations, when I was thirteen, and to field hockey practice when I was in high school. When I was in college at the University of New Mexico, where he taught, he used to take me to lunch at the Faculty Club, where a man named Gus would grill us hamburgers over charcoal.

You don't "take" my father. He takes you.

But not taking Daddy was an even more inconceivable thing to consider. What was the alternative? My sister said she couldn't handle living with both my parents. My mother had agreed.

"Take him," she reiterated.

"Of course," I said. Of course I would.

Daddy had come to all my ice-skating and ballet and piano recitals when I was little and clapped even though I was dreadful. He whispered my lines to me when I played Christopher Robin in the Albuquerque Children's Theater production of Winnie-the-Pooh. He brought my sister and me dolls from all over the world, Thailand, Kenya, Japan. And he'd always been good for a double pat on the back (but not hugs or kisses, he was not demonstrative that way) when I'd needed one.

To turn him away was impossible. So we took Daddy.

I discussed it with Shane. We were up for it, we made plans. We were even getting excited. We would give him Ava's room at the end of the hall and move her into the smaller room near us. Then he would have the view out twin windows down Beartown Road of the valley that filled every morning with mist. We would get a subscription to The New York Times and The New Yorker, his two favorite things to read. We would cook brisket, we'd stock the kitchen with rye bread and pastrami. We'd get better mustard.

After all, we had only one child and there were two of us. My job as a journalist wasn't quite as demanding as my sister's job in telecommunications. I could wear jeans to work; she had to put on suits and stockings every day. And we had this house we'd just bought, with more than five acres in the rural countryside of Broome County, New York. We took Daddy because it felt like the right thing to do. The good thing.

I had no idea.

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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Anyone who has ever been in the position of a caregiver, or has come face to face with the crisis of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, will find much worth talking about in Elizabeth Cohen's memoir, The House on Beartown Road. After leaving New York City with her husband and baby to begin anew in an upstate community, Elizabeth Cohen's life unexpectedly begins spiraling out of control. Her father -- suffering from mid-to-late-stage Alzheimer's -- moves in, and any idyllic visions of life in the country are instantly shattered. Cohen's husband makes a quick exit, and she becomes caregiver to two: mother of one, daughter of the other. In this moving story of loss and hope, Cohen provides book clubs with wonderful opportunities to talk about a whole spectrum of issues from learning, illness, and identity to the nature of memory itself.

One topic sure to fascinate is how Cohen attempts to cope with her father's losing battle with the changes in his mind: Once an academic, he now speaks in "word salad," struggling to describe everyday things whose names have been lost to him -- among those names, she is painfully reminded, is her own. Book groups can explore the awesome parallel between Cohen's daughter and her father, for as one learns how to dress herself, feed herself, and speak for the first time, the other is forgetting how to do the same things. Helped by countless friends and neighbors, Cohen traces her experience as a caregiver alongside her journey to understanding a disease she initially knew little about -- a grueling experience many readers will find familiar.

Perhaps the most provocative conversations that this book will inspire concern the author's insightful treatment of the unique intersection between the dawn and twilight of the mind -- Cohen examines how memories and experiences shape us, and what it means when they slip away. In the end, despite the darkness of the subject matter, this is a chronicle of small triumphs, and reading groups will find The House on Beartown Road a perfect point of departure for discussing not merely the problem of Alzheimer's but also the complexities of the mind, and the deep ties of love. (Elise Vogel)

Discussion Questions From the Publisher
1. The House on Beartown Road chronicles a year of dramatic and tumultuous changes in the author's life. In that year, she moved from a big city to a rural upstate New York town, her father moved in with her family and she then learns that he has dementia. her husband leaves, taking off for New Mexico, her daughter is teething and then the first snowstorm hits. What is most surprising about Elizabeth's reaction to her circumstances? How do her mother and sister's coping skills compare to hers?

2. The book has many themes, among them the trials of love, the perils of winter, learning and forgetting, the importance of community, and the beauty and survival power of family. As you see it, what ties all these themes together; how do they intersect?

3. Cohen writes about this messy, absorbing year in the framework of how we learn and how we forget. How did what was happening to her father give Cohen insight into what was happening to her daughter, and vice versa? What special insight into the processes of memory do you feel these experiences gave her?

4. When Cohen herself suffers a memory lapse, she immediately fears that she too might have Alzheimers. She begins to test her memory by quizzing herself on past experiences and she realizes her how her life has changed. How has Cohen's role as a caretaker colored her view of her past and her outlook for her future?

5. The circle of friends Cohen develops in her new home is diverse and for the most part understanding. How might living in a rural area have helped Cohen to discover a "network of community?"

6. When Cohen's husband reappears, is her reaction unexpected? Is Ava's?

7. What, if any, advice can be gleaned from this book about caring for others? Do you think that Cohen wrote it in order to offer advice? If not, what was her motivation?

8. Cohen had an opportunity to acquire an unusual vantage point on the developmental stages of the human mind. What can we learn from what she experienced?

9. If you were faced with the same situation Cohen found herself in, would you do anything differently?

10. The New York Times Book Review wrote that "Instead of molding all this into 270 pages of scathing retribution or bitter self-pity, Cohen has written a frank, funny and unexploitative memoir." Do you agree?

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2004

    A Beautiful Story of Real Life

    Elisabeth Cohen writes with understanding, compassion, and humor about the daily struggles a caretaker has with an Alzheimer patient. Several years ago I was in a similar situation with my mother, but with much more of a family support group than Elisabeth Cohen had available to her. The book explores with much dignity the early and mid stages of Alzheimer¿s Disease and is a must read for anyone finding themselves in such circumstances. As I read the book I relived many of my past experiences with my mother, both the very humorous and the sad.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2004

    beautifully written

    the reason i bought this book was because i heard the author being interviewed on public radio and she sounded interesting.i dc not know any one suffering from that disease[thank god]and my kids are almost all grown ,however,i really related to her story.ii is beautifully written .she had a really tough time but never whined about it.she got thru the hard times and was happy at the end.i could not stop reading it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2004

    Elizabeth did it, well so can I, she gave me strength!

    Reading Elizabeth's book made me look into the crystal ball I do not have, and made me realize what I have coming very soon in my own life. My father is entering the later stages of Alzheimers. This is a wonderfully written book, and a must read for anyone going through this journey with a loved one. I really related to this beautifully set New York State rural setting, as I live 20 miles away. Elizabeth takes us through the ups and downs of caring for her adorable baby,Ava, while taking in her father to live with her as this disease is starting to defeat him. All as a single parent. This is a MUST read to anyone who has or knows anyone with Alzheimers. At the end, I wanted more! I want a sequel!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2003

    The most beautifully written memoir

    I've read and reviewed lots of books about Alzheimer's, but I think I can honestly say this is the most beautifully written that I've ever read. Elizabeth Cohen, at the time a single parent, writes of her baby girl Ava's growing and learning at the same time that she write's of her retired Economics professor father's forgetting and his descent into Alzheimer's disease. Set in a rural New York state farmhouse, the events of daily life bring both tears and laughter, and the helpful caring neighbors warm our hearts. Every time I began reading, I didn't want to put down this book, and yet, I didn't want to finish because I knew how I would miss Elizabeth, her Daddy, baby Ava, Jody the helpful caregiver, and all of the wonderful neighbors that surrounded them. Highly recommended, a must read for all caregivers of Alzheimer's patients!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2003

    Lovely Story depicting the challanges of family

    As I am in a similiar situation as Ms. Cohen both a child of an ill parent and a parent myself, I relate to the story that she tells. The best part of the book is the line of humor woven into the tragedy she deals with daily. She is a hero in my eyes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2003

    It's a Wonderful Life! Oh, yes indeed!

    Elizabeth Cohen takes us on a monumental journey through life at its grittiest and most challenging. Her own dreams are snatched away in the twinkling of an eye to be upstaged by her role as caregiver to her baby and to a father in the throes of Alzheimer's. This is a magnificent chronicling of life and learning washing over a toddler just as they abandon her grandfather. We pity Elizabeth because we can't help ourselves, not because she in any way asks us to. This is a tale of victory over one of life's crushing blows and of hope where there should be none. I have been a reader of Ms. Cohen's newspaper columns for several years; now I am more eager a fan as I feel that I've had a glimpse of her wonderful spirit - the soul of the child and the mother facing life headon. I read in her interview that Elizabeth feels she has a great novel in her; I for one cannot wait until she sets it free.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2003

    Touching and Courageous

    As another 'sandwich generation' caregiver, I found The House on Beartown Road to be a touching and courageous chronicle of a very difficult time in the author's life. It made me laugh and cry and helped me better understand my own situation of having two parents with dementia. I'm thankful to Elizabeth for such an honest, heartfelt, and inspirational glimpse into her life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2003

    Witnessing Life from the Beginning and the End

    The House on Beartown Road is a very well written and honest look at life from a person sandwiched between a younger, and an older, generation. From this unique perspective the author shares her thoughts and feelings as she lives through the excitment of watching her baby grow and learn, while at the same time, witnessing the failing mind of her father. You may find yourself crying on one page and then laughing on the next as you share the rollercoaster of emotion with the author and her family.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2003

    Strength and Sadness

    I read Ms. Cohen's book over the course of a day and a half. I normally take weeks to read books of its length. The story seemed as though it would be incredibly depressing. Because there is no end to the deterioration of her father's mental state, you would think you'd get bogged down and lose hope. But every time it seems as though the sadness will overtake Ms. Cohen (and the reader), something beautiful and hopeful happens. Her daughter learns something new. Her father remembers her. I'm glad that Ms. Cohen is so honest about her imperfections in dealing with the situation. I'm glad she felt open enough to share the personal hurt over her husband's abandonment and return. Without those real glimpses into Ms. Cohen's heart and her feelings of inadequacy, it would have been impossible to relate to her. With them, you feel as though you could be her. At the end of the book, I wanted to know more. The biggest piece of information I want to know is how she and her family are now. She allows you to love everyone in her family to the point where you don't want to let them go. I whole-heartedly recommend this book -- not just to people of the sandwich generation or to people affected by alzheimers but -- to anyone who would sacrifice anything for their families.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2003

    Outstanding, Informative, Great Reading/Humor

    Elizabeth Cohen was a favorite columnist of mine in the NY Times, I have followed her work in THE PRESS & SUN BULLETIN,I eagerly awaited the release of her book THE HOUSE ON BEARTOWN ROAD. It was awe-inspiring from the first to last pages. Her humor and fortitude in an almost impossible situation compounded by the rejection of her husband, her overbearing Mother and ill Father had me transfixed and amazed how a former City girl could adapt to such difficult situations and manage to care for a baby as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, rated it a top FIVE, hopefully Ms. Cohen continues to write many more books, I shall continue to follow/read all her works. My hat is off to her, I have referred this book to many people.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2003

    Fine read

    Elizabeth Cohen has a way of tying the literate thing to say, to the laying out of the mundane. Her book, 'The House On Beartown Road' is a fine read. Whether you live in her geographical area and can relate to the winter she details, or have experience with an Alzheimers-suffering person, or have lived with a 1-2 year old, or have had a spouse leave, or none of the above, her down to earth story-telling captures you. Her strength as a woman comes through clearly in her writing, even when she is at her most depressing of times. The reader knows it will be sorted out. Not quite an easy ending, but one almost wishes her husband would not return, as she has forged her life and her daughter's life into a triumph well beyond struggle.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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