Book Review: Aging Well By Using Our Younger Selves

Retirement

“The End of Old Age: Living a Longer and More Purposeful Life, by Marc E. Agronin, M.D. Da Capo Press, 227 p.

The title of this valuable book on aging seems over-reaching and marketing driven to to me. But I’ll concede the author’s premise: that our predisposition to view aging as a depressingly high hurdle ending only in death is counter-productive and not particularly helpful. It locks us in. It makes us more vulnerable to the undeniable realities of aging.

What’s Agronin’s alternative? To function on the premise that “aging is the solution and not the problem.” Meaning that the creativity and compassion and resilience of our younger selves should be the foundation of our aging — the indispensable qualities that are there for use in our later years but sometimes forgotten or forcibly set aside by physical infirmities.

Says Agronin: “Aging must neither define us or serve as only a limiting factor, but should become a powerful, life-changing tool that enables us to elevate, celebrate and transcend being old in ways that have profound influences on our personal world and the greater world around us.”

Agronin, who’s in his mid-fifties, is a geriatric psychiatrist in Miami who listens carefully to the life stories of his patients and then advises them on how to successfully navigate their final years based on the personal qualities and experiences they bring to old age.

“By examining our lives,” Agronin says, “how even when our daily existence appears painful, muddled and teetering, the forces of wisdom can bring us an unspoken, transcendant sense of possibility, purpose and hope.”

Consider, most dramatically, a patient of Agronin’s named Muriel, who seemed, he says, “at the end of her 80-year-old road.”

In a hospice, Muriel “had suffered from excruciating leg and back pain for the past four years, and from a sad bevy of maladies for several decades before that.” She was “doped up on morphone and delirious from pancreatitis.”

Muriel’s situation was so extreme, Agronin says, that she might have considered suicide. But “she was in too much pain and mental agony to actually carry out a suicide plan.” So she hung on, drew on the resources of her younger self, and finally began a rehabilitation regimen overseen by Agronin. She underwent complicated treatments, and eventually moved in with her daughter. Muriel, a dedicated caregiver all her life, became the one cared for, and one day her daughter sent Agronin a photo of Muriel and her eight-month-old granddaughter. Says Muriel’s doctor proudly: “Both smiling faces — separated by eighty years in time — radiated common joy.”

Agronin draws this conclusion from Muriel’s transformation: “I’ve seen why people age, and I’ve learned how they survive — but that is not often enough. Aging also brings us new possibilities and opportunities to go above and beyond what came before — to renew and re-invent ourselves in creative ways that we might not have imagined before. It’s not just about aging and surviving. It’s about a time to thrive.”

That’s probably not over-reaching, and this provocative book is definitely worth reading for its insightful and relentlessly affirmative analysis of old age. If you’re 65 or over, read it for yourself. If you’re younger, read it as a guide to giving your parents and grandparents a better life toward the end.

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