The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

In The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, the title tells it all.

Hendrik Groen is a resident of a nursing home in Amsterdam where he’s surrounded by his aging peers, who are all more than happy to pass their remaining days discussing their various illnesses and ailments. Groen hates this enthusiasm for complaining. “Another year, and I still don’t like old people. Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching,” his first diary entry reads.

Hendrik, however, rarely airs his complaints out loud, admitting that his specialty is pleasing everyone and keeping his thoughts to himself. This is what sparks his idea of starting a diary: to give him an outlet to say what he really thinks.

The book follows Hendrik for an entire year, with him making entries almost every day. He documents the complaints and misadventures of his fellow residents. He discusses the news and the weather (but not that much; he doesn’t want to be one of those old people who only ever discusses the weather). He tells you about his friends and their trials, as well as his adversarial relationship with the home management.

Hendrik is a very straightforward, matter-of-fact narrator, but he sprinkles in a good dose of humor among of the bleaker aspects of his life in the nursing home. He discusses his issues with incontinence, which he refers to as his “dribbles,” noting at one point, “It seems that I’m in good company: there are about a million other Dutch dribblers. Which means enough urine is collected in our citizens’ underpants and diapers to fill an entire swimming pool every day. Yippee!”

Eventually, Hendrik and seven of his friends get together and create the Old But Not Dead Club. The members have regular meetings and take turns planning surprise outings for the group, which usually involves lots of laughs, wine and food.

It’s a heartwarming progression to watch as Hendrik and his fellow club members form strong friendships that keep them sane and active through the sadder realities of their age: dementia, diseases, funerals. They have all accepted their lot in life and are determined to live out the rest of their days as happily as possible.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t ready to leave Hendrik and his musings. My favorite thing about this book is its acceptance and celebration of normal life. Hendrik by no means leads a crazy or unusual life. But who really does day to day? His diary entries record the pockets of action and humor in a normal day and show appreciation for them.

I’m happy to say that Hendrik has inspired me to start journaling again. I always start them, but I eventually abandon the hobby because I feel my life isn’t interesting enough to document regularly. But again, whose life doesn’t contain dreary days that are wholly unremarkable? I’m endeavoring to follow Hendrik’s example and record the bits of humor, sadness, happiness and humanity that I witness every day without fully appreciating them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs a good laugh, feels a certain kinship with the elderly, wants to understand the elderly better, or needs a reminder of the joy that can be found in the most ordinary of days.

Have you read The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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