“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old” is a wonderful Dutch novel with an anonymous author. Although some have speculated that it is really the diary of an octogenarian, Peter de Smet revealed that he was the author in 2016, two years after the book became a bestseller.
The author, however, is immaterial. The book is reminiscent of “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. It is funny, sad, and reveals the details of Hendrik’s life a few at a time.
Hendrik Groen is an 83-year-old resident of an assisted living facility in Amsterdam. He begins a diary recording the daily tribulations of life in an institution surrounded by his peers. He starts the diary with the telling line, “Another year, and I still don’t like old people.” The residents of The House of the Setting Sun are a mixed bag of stereotyped elderly people, many of whom spend their days waiting for mealtimes, seeking opportunities to moan about their constipation, or discussing family members who appear to have forgotten them.
In rebellion, Hendrik and a small group of friends form the Old-But-Not-Dead Club with the goal “…to increase the enjoyment of advanced age by arranging outings”, and the clearly stated rule, “No whining allowed.” Soon, the club comes to the attention of management staff and other residents who are clearly irked by the fact that the club members are enjoying life and not behaving as institutionalized old people should.
This funny and touching novel questions how we see the elderly, especially old people in care facilities. Hendrik suggests that relocating to assisted living does not have to mean surrendering all enjoyment of life. “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen” has a universal appeal as we all face issues of aging. These issues are covered from an older person’s perspective, a voice too often ignored.
When I finished reading “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen,” I gave it to my parents with a little trepidation. I didn’t want it to suggest I see them as old. Mom and Dad are experts at seizing the day and living life to the fullest. Fortunately they both loved it and are now passing it around among their friends. Sharing a book with others who enjoy it is a wonderful thing.
Hendrik begins his diary as an expose of treatment in the care facility. But soon, with the help of his friends, Hendrik focuses on what is good about life instead of the indignities. Honest and humorous, Hendrik writes for one year – and only one year. But the book is so good you want it to go on. The book inspires us to find the joy in each day as long as we are a part of the “Old-But-Not-Dead Club.”