"Elderhood"

“Considering how old you are…,” “If you were my father, I would…,” “Given your age…,” are just three of the phrases my doctors use now when I have annual checkups. I walk out of their examining rooms with a long list of “don’ts”, the feeling that I am wearing out and the sense that from this point on life is all downhill.

In a refreshing contrast, Harvard-trained geriatrician and award-winning author, Louise Aronson offer a highly original definition of aging, full of empathy, knowledge, compassion and joy. “Elderhood” provides a bold critique of our anti-aging society and of the medical care seniors receive. She includes vivid accounts of the problems encountered by patients in her medical practice as well as from her own challenges in learning about and adapting to the aging process.

“Elderhood” includes troubling case studies of patients who have suffered unnecessarily from misdiagnoses and missteps made by doctors unfamiliar with the changing, unique conditions of aging. The author takes a close look at the medical-industrial complex which sometimes makes life more difficult by manufacturing pill bottles that cannot be opened by arthritic hands and by overprescribing drugs with debilitating side effects. She shares harrowing stories of malfeasance in senior acute care, home health care and other senior medical facilities.

Aronson criticizes our ageist society which looks upon aging as a disease, a condition to be dreaded, disparaged, denied and ignored. She specifically censures the medical community for its impersonal treatment protocols which fail patients 60 years old and older.

“Growing old could be much more graceful if doctors would give it some attention,” according to this noted geriatrician. She examines the often invasive, painful and many times “futile or harmful” treatments the medical community uses to fight disease while giving little attention to overall wellbeing. She notes that in the hierarchy of medical specialties, geriatrics is low-rated. Aronson observes that pediatricians and internists are specialists who provide care for children and adults through midlife, and she insists that patients in the last third of life need specialists too. She regrets that medical schools emphasize youthfulness and fail to provide adequate education for elder care.

Aronson purports that the third stage of life needs to be considered not as a period of decline, but as just another stage of life filled with challenges, opportunities and joys, like the first two stages. The author calls for a cultural re-examination of the meaning of aging and urges everyone to begin to re-imagine our latter years in order to prepare and thrive during them.

After presenting this critical, knowledgeable and first-hand examination of the current state of medicine and aging, Aronson provides her own vision of aging. She envisions elderhood as “neither nightmare nor utopian fantasy”, but a stage in life which is full of joy, wonder, frustration, outrage and hope. To get the full picture, you will have to read the book.

I do not like getting older. I see it and feel it, but I try not to let aging stop me from living some of the most fulfilling, creative years of my life. This book, part memoir, part critique and part prescription, encourages readers to help put an end to the anti-aging industry and its profiteers, to engage in better self-care and to collectively ask the medical community to look at elderhood not as a disease. Instead she urges her fellow physicians to view aging through multiple lenses including the social, personal and wellness aspects of growing older. I recommend this book to anyone who, in the author’s own words, is “an aging, i.e., still breathing human being.”