One of the great contradictions in human nature is that we all want to live long lives, but none of us wants to become elderly. Of course, we cannot have the one goal without the consequence of the other -- sagging skin, diminished eyesight and hearing, and a loss of physical skills. Still, becoming aged does not necessarily mean a bedridden existence devoid of growth and wonder. What if the last years contain the secret of living that had eluded us previously? Would we begin to live each moment as if it were truly a precious gift?
In "How We Age: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Growing Old," Dr. Marc Agronin discovered through his psychiatric practice at the Miami Jewish Home & Hospital that along with the dread of aging and the very real limitations that occur there is another more positive aspect often overlooked.
"I began to see age in a different context: Someone living with the daily infirmities of aging and approaching death could still enjoy most of the same human experiences we find so precious in younger years."
Some of this is cold comfort. As Agronin admits, the often debilitating effects of genetics and lifestyle are hard to overcome. Depression is a good example, a "coat of many colors whose expression and treatment course are fundamentally influenced by all of these unique aspects of the individual."
Agronin, who is as sensitive in his writing as he appears to be in his treatment, must negotiate the disruptive "double whammy" of aging and mental illness. He dispenses both drugs and therapy while treating the patient instead of simply treating the ailment. Here is a doctor who not only writes poetically but who also demonstrates what it means to have respect for our elders.
Along with examples from literature and history that explore many aspects of aging such as memory and wisdom, the strength of "How We Age" is the compelling and absorbing case studies. In these patients' stories readers will find a greater understanding of their own aging and that of their loved ones.
Ninety-year-old Mac was a fighter pilot in World War II. When Agronin meets this hero he is in the confounding stage of decreased cognitive powers that most 90-year-olds experience. When asked if anything is better, Mac says that he is more adaptable to change. "I realize that if I don't adjust my style ... I am liable to hurt myself."
Agronin adds a diagnosis that should give everyone hope. "Even in the context of intellectual decline, including substantial memory loss, the enhanced capacity to love, create, and renew relationships is a gift of aging not to be overlooked or trivialized."
Stephen J. Lyons' new book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River."