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‘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

Elderhood 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.

What’s Your Mountain?

A year before Isabella de la Houssaye reached the summit of a 22,840-foot-high mountain peak in the Andes with her daughter Bella, she had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

The 55-year-old, an outdoors enthusiast, and her husband David Crane had five children, aged 16 to 25, all of whom had conquered outdoor adventures together with the family and as individuals. So after recovering sufficiently from grueling cancer treatment and feeling stronger, Isabella was determined to have other adventures with each of her children, individually, in large part to impart life lessons to them.

The climb to the top of Aconcagua in Argentina with college-junior Bella, with a team that included a New York Times reporter and photographer, is a remarkable story of almost unimaginable challenges, courage, grit and determination. It was featured in a lengthy article in the Times that you can read here.

One passage in the story that I found especially moving – and thankfully its lesson is not dependent on climbing a mountain to learn from – records Isabella’s attitude about illness:

“So much of who I was was defined by my physical strength,” she said. “It’s definitely hard being sick and saying goodbye to the person you were before. You have to redefine yourself, and you don’t want to define yourself as a sick person. I’m learning that you have to find acceptance with the decline.”

Facing Mortality Head-On

Her story is inspiring, to say the least. But I must admit that after I read it, I knew that if at some point I am diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, my first thought would not be: let me call my son and propose that we climb a 22,840-foot-high mountain together. As I kept thinking about Isabella’s ultimately successful ordeal, though, I wondered: what would I do (after emerging from a period of hiding and mourning my life under the covers)?

It’s an important question, one that many of us don’t think about much. How do I know that? For the past several months, I’ve been giving “Conversation of Your Life” talks to various groups. It’s all about advance care planning: having the conversation with loved ones about your treatment preferences if you cannot speak for yourself; choosing a health care proxy; preparing an advance directive; and communicating with your doctors about what you want and what you don’t want. Essential issues.

What I try to stress, though, is that the first and most important part of this process of communication is to communicate with yourself. That is, to confront your mortality head-on. So much flows from that. It isn’t all about medical treatments, just as serious illness itself isn’t just a medical issue. It’s about what you feel you want and need to do before you can no longer do it. It’s about how you want to live the rest of your life – honoring your sense of what gives your life meaning and purpose. It’s about the kind of legacy you want to leave. It’s about who you want to surround yourself with. And unfinished business to attend to.

When I talk about this fundamental part of communication, I sometimes ask my audience, who has given some thought to this? What are you envisioning? The response? Crickets, typically. Either no one has given this any thought, or people feel too shy or embarrassed to share.

Sharing Your Values

So I’ll share some of what I’d like. If I am gravely ill and still have my wits about me, I’d like a big good-bye party, with lots of food and lots to drink. I’d like to hear from family and friends about what I’ve meant to them, what they’ll remember, how I’ve affected them and funny stories they can tell. All the wonderful and moving things that people say at funerals that the deceased don’t get to hear. (At least we don’t have any evidence that they do.) I want to hear it before I go.

And, speaking of food: We’ve been hosting Thanksgiving and Passover for decades and in recent years our small family has happily grown to include seven grandchildren and cousins’ grandchildren, aged six and under. As you might imagine, these events are like organized chaos, but always seem too short. One reason I love to keep doing this is that I am hoping that all the younger-generation cousins and their children will continue to recognize how precious these times are and will keep the tradition going.

Clearly, Isabella had grander things in mind, but fundamentally she wanted to impart her values and wishes to her family. She succeeded in accomplishing what she set out to do. After reaching the summit, Isabella said, “It was so important to me that Bella and I have this experience together. I really wanted her to see that when things get hard, you can find a place inside yourself to keep going.”

An important lesson for all of us.

What’s your mountain?

Talking About….Life, Ageism, Death and Everything in Between

Had a wide-ranging conversation about how the media portrays (or doesn’t) elders, serious illness; how people misunderstand palliative and hospice care; and lots more on Barry Lynn’s “Culture Shocks” podcast.

You can listen to our half-hour conversation in the second half of the podcast.

Yea or Nay on Medical Aid in Dying?

Hawaii has become the latest state to enable medical aid-in-dying, and  public opinion has been shifting more in favor of it in the past couple of years.  It’s still an enormously controversial subject and too often advocates on both the “pro” and “con” side shed more heat than light on it.  I wrote this blog piece for http://sixtyandme.com in hopes of providing a little light.

Spoiler alert: I am opposed to medical aid-in-dying. Not for religious reasons, or because it violates the medical principle of “do no harm” or even because of fear of the “slippery slope” that would harm the most vulnerable among us.

In short, it seems to me that this evolution is more of a striking and continuing indication of the sorry state of end-of-life care currently, than it is a rational health care solution for those suffering terminal illnesses.

You can read the piece here: http://sixtyandme.com/exploring-both-sides-of-the-physician-aided-dying-conversation/