‘Elderhood’: A Necessary Look at Embracing Aging in All its Stages

‘Elderhood’: A Necessary Look at Embracing Aging in All its Stages

I wonder if Madonna, 60, thinks of herself as old.

I’m guessing probably not, but maybe she should. Think of how much she might contribute to the discussion about what it means to age, to grow older well, and how we can facilitate that for all of us, not just for a privileged few.

This thought might never have crossed my mind except for having read Louise Aronson’s extraordinary new book, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life,” and having the opportunity to interview her about it. Aronson is a geriatrician and professor of geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco.

In the book, an amalgam of facts, patient stories, tales of Aronson’s own education and medical experience — as well as references to history, anthropology, literature and scientific studies — combine to shine a light on the necessity to rethink aging itself. Bonus: reading it also provides the great pleasure of following the path of a unique and invaluable mind and heart.

In some ways the book is an indictment of our medical system, which recognizes that chronic illness and aging are a major health challenge, but often treats those who experience it or the specialists who treat it as second class citizens. And she has a number of recommendations for changing the system. Among the many reasons why the need for change is so compelling: People who are 65 or older represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of hospitalized adults; with a few notable exceptions, hospitals as they are designed and operated currently present a great many challenges for elders.

“Elderhood” is also a road map for those of us who are aging to tap back into our boomer activist genes and insist on better care as we go forward, not only from the health care system, but also from policymakers who have a big impact on how that care is provided and paid for. As for ourselves individually, it’s time to discard the clichés and stereotypes of aging we may have internalized over the years.

“Elderhood is life’s third and final act; what it looks like is up to us,” Aronson writes. “This third act is not a repeat of the first or second. More often it is in life what it is in drama: the site of our story’s climax, denouement and resolution.”

The book dispels a number of myths about what aging looks like. “Old age is only partially determined by biology. It’s long, varied, relative and relational,” she writes, noting that “a good part of the suffering in old age is manufactured by our policies and attitudes.”

Owning Our Elderhood, in All Its Substages

elderhood6-19Elderhood comprises a number of substages and in Aronson’s view we need better language for those substages. As an example: at 55, she has taken to referring to herself as old when she teaches her medical students at UCSF (who, she said, amused, most likely consider her “old” anyway).

“The more we own it, the better. We reform it,” she said. Much as the LGBTQ community has taken back the word “queer” and succeeded in taking the awful sting out of it, we can “reclaim, create or repurpose simple words to redefine themselves and their place in society,” she writes.

Aronson stresses that the numbers of elders who find satisfaction and purpose in their lives and consider their health excellent – despite having to contend with a variety of ills – are legion. Studies have shown, for example, that anxiety rates fall around 60. In their 80s, she has found, for the most part people are quite satisfied, more so than in their 40s and 50s.

“Adaptability is a huge defining characteristic of elderhood,” she told me.

In her elderhood clinic at the University of California San Francisco, Aronson treats people ranging in age from 60 to 102. (Fun fact: The World Health Organization, among others, defines people aged 60 and up as old.) So, she points out, there are at least two generations within this group.

“It’s time for elderhood to take its rightful place alongside childhood and adulthood,” she writes. That includes the “young-old” and the “old-old” and all the stages in between, under the umbrella of elderhood.

Aronson explained that in her clinic, dealing with the “whole human being” is of first and foremost importance. She focuses on functional status because “that’s a better predictor of whether [patients] will wind up in the hospital or not.” Together, she and her patients discuss preferences and goals – not just medical, but goals of life. She also wants to know about “who’s in their world?” In other words, how does the person live, who is available to be supportive, what obstacles or barriers lie in the path to a better quality of life and how does the person actually feel about aging. “That impacts recovery,” she said. The clinic practices what she calls the four “P’s”: prevention, purpose, priorities and perspective.

“Failing to fully acknowledge the ongoing human development and diversity of older Americans is bad medicine and flawed public health,” she says, noting that “we can only make aging good if we make it good for all of us.”

I could go on quoting Aronson, but I won’t. Instead, I encourage you to read it to discover the many gems to be found.

Maybe Madonna should read it too.

Ellen Rand
Ellen Rand
I’ve been a journalist for more than 40 years, including five years as a housing columnist for The New York Times; and a hospice volunteer with Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey since 2010. My essays have appeared in several medical humanities publications, including Pulse—Voices from the Heart of Medicine; KevinMD; Life Matters Media; Generations Beat Online; and the Gold Foundation. An avid theater and film fan, I was a co-founder and for five years the executive director of a film festival in my community, whose theme is “Activism: Making Change.” It routinely draws an audience of thousands every November.
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