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Health & Wellness

One Physician's Uplifting New Perspective on Aging

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As a Harvard-trained geriatrician, Louise Aronson, M.D., has spent more than 25 years taking care of seniors. Her patients have given her a lot in return, including wisdom.

“Though I was working for them, my patients ended up teaching me what questions really matter as we age and how people can increase their chances of living well and meaningfully throughout their lives,” Aronson writes in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. The newly published book offers a compassionate and optimistic perspective on the third stage of life.

Dr. Aronson spoke to GetOld from San Francisco, where she lives, writes fiction, practices medicine, and helps trains a new generation of physicians as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

GetOld: In a nutshell, what’s the big message of your book?

Dr. Aronson: I believe that old age itself isn’t the problem so much as misconceptions about old age and the way we tell certain stories about getting older and not others. I also believe that part of what makes old age hard is that we fight it, rather than embrace it as one stage, like childhood and early adulthood, in a universal trajectory.

GetOld:  What have you learned from your patients about how to embrace aging?

Dr. Aronson: The people who end up having the best lives through the decades of old age (and it’s decades long for most people) are the ones who acknowledge change and plan for it. The fact is we’ve been changing all along. I didn’t do at 25 what I did at 15. I don’t do at 55 what I did at 35. Many of these changes are better; some are disappointing. That happens throughout life.

Let’s take traveling. You love to travel, but maybe if you get back the night before you have to go to work, or you have a bunch of volunteer work or family commitments the next day, you’re going to feel exhausted.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go on the trip; just plan so when you come back you can have the rest your body needs. And maybe on the trip, whereas previously you would have scheduled yourself from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, you’re going to put some brakes in there to rest. Having done that, you still get to go see old friends and new parts of the world.

If you don’t make those changes, you may decide, oh, I’m too old to travel. That’s not true, it’s how you travel that needs to change.

Another example is that lots of people don’t want to use a cane or a walker. In fact, people who are willing to use those devices actually look stronger than the people who aren’t. If you see someone who’s frail and wobbly and they don’t have a cane, you think, wow, that’s a frail, older, wobbly person. But if you see someone who’s confidently using his or her cane, you think, oh, look at how energetic that person is.

Mindset is everything. You might think, ‘oh, I need a walker now so I can’t go to the movies.’  Sure you can. That’s a choice you’re making. Enjoy your life; you have every right to do that. You don’t need to apologize for being old or for needing a walker.

GetOld: You say there are some very positive things about getting older.

Dr. Aronson: As we reach our late fifties and into our sixties, people get happier, more focused on what matters, more confident. They have less anxiety, and they have greater life satisfaction. And it just keeps going up. By their later sixties or early seventies, older adults surpass younger adults on all measures, showing less stress, depression, worry, and anger and more enjoyment and happiness. People between 65 and 79 report the highest average levels of personal well-being.

We don’t talk about that. So one of the big things in the book is to say, yes, some of the body stuff that happens as we age can be rotten. But tell the other story, too, which is that you now have time to do all those things younger adults are complaining that they can’t do. As an elder, you can exercise every day if you want. You can go play cards or you can volunteer. You can cook that dinner even though the recipe says it’s going to take you two or three hours.

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