Getting to the roots of gerontology

Until this past July, gerontology was just a word I sort of understood, sort of didn’t.  Attending a 5-day conference with some 6,000 gerontologists & geriatricians soon too care of that!

Preparing to skeedaddle out to San Francisco for the International Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics 21st quadrennial World Congress saw me steeping myself in the ins & outs of the specialties.

Discovered that the study of aging is a young science.  Is it mere coincidence that introduction of what turns into the study of the problems of aging parallels Sigmund Freud’s work?  I am no scholar on the matter, but I think the two are very connect.  Freud started people looking at the pathology of everything, at the intertwining roots in the psyche.

Freud didn’t speak a lot about aging, but what he said did not paint a pretty picture.  Oh, and was WRONG:  The age of patients has this much importance in determining their fitness for psycho-analytic treatment, that, on the one hand, near or above the age of fifty the elasticity of the mental processes, on which the treatment depends, is as a rule lacking–old people are no longer educable–and, on the other hand, the mass of material to be dealt with would prolong the duration of the treatment indefinitely.

Sadly, that point of view prevailed until fairly recently.  Freud & other “knowledgeable” were wrong in thinking the brain loses its elasticity, that olders can’t learn a whole array of new tricks, that deterioration of the thought process is as inevitable as it is inexorable.

If there is one thing the typical physician abhors & fears, it is the concept of death.  Old age is problematic because it leads to death.  Old people die, therefore something must be WRONG with old people.

Pardon me, but that is just bone headed.  My mother died at 91 years old & she was learning new things about herself, her family, her community & world right up to her last breath.  During her last week, spent at home in hospice care, she was dictating answers to Psych 101 students at a local college.  She had HUGE aha realizations about herself & her children – ones she’d resisted for all her life – in her late 80s because THAT was when she had enough information & self-acceptance to take big scary steps that would have been impossible any time sooner.

For over 100 years, gerontologists focused on the PROBLEMS of aging, using youth as the golden mean of human existence & anything that lead away from it as broken, damaged.  Instead of studying aging for the richness years bring, specialists & experts focused on doing what they could to offset the appearance of aging, to downplay its symptoms & to take whatever means they could to delay death.  And in doing so, they closed their eyes to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there was as much use in aging as there was in puberty, in fertility, in growing learned.

Praise be, the men & women I spoke with this summer ARE interested in seeing the whys & wherefores of aging, to see the benefits of growing rich in years, to consider concepts associated with old age, such as WISDOM.

Am laughing, writing this, remembering one of the vendors, who peddled an anti-aging cream.  He was frustrated out of his mind because here were all these people who should have three deep around his display & he couldn’t get anyone to give him the time of day.  At his wit’s end how to get people to hear his pitch, he took to the aisles, only to have person after person, men but especially women, brush him off, saying some version of “I LIKE my wrinkles!”

The study of human aging seems to have become more humane.  Instead of looking for ways to stop the march of time, more & more are pondering the importance of growing older, of the things they bring – insight perception perspective – that’s rare in youth & even middle age.  More are waking up to the fact that our way of dealing with old age – segrating by age, separating from communities & families, removing the “worries” of daily chores & the ability to be of service – have yielded a range of negative results in the name of managing a process instead of celebrating it.

Christmas always brings our mothers close to us in heart & mind.  This is our 20th Christmas without John’s mother, sixteen without mine.  John’s mother was remarkably fit for her age – she died of a sudden heart attack at 87 – while mine was also, as her doctor put it, “fit considering her health.”  She was on a variety of meds, but strong of spirit if a bit bedraggled in body.

Mom was blessed to have a general practitioner & specialists who gave any presenting symptom it’s full value – I don’t recall her ever talking about one of her doctors dismissing anything as “that’s typical of your age,” as many can.

My view of how the medical profession views aging grew incredibly more expansive since the IAGG World Congress.  I heard specialists & physicians talk imply that aging was a problem to be overcome, not a state to be appreciated.  I heard some admit to tendencies to blow off a presenting condition as “a natural part of aging”; some confided about patients they saw with symptoms that would have alarmed them in a younger person, but that they minimalized due to the patient’s age – to their regret.  Quite a few took themselves to task for not paying more attention to the VALUE of aging.  And a couple talked about going into gerontological research because through a beloved elder they’d come to see an entire group poorly served by a medical tradition that seemed to put extending life about enriching it.

Oh, how I wish I’d read James Hillman’s The Force of Character & the Lasting Life, before heading out to San Francisco.  He notes, “The alterations of the aging body are precisely where wisdom lie. The body remains the teacher.”  I would love to have discussed over coffee or cocktails his premise that “biological systems are psychological systems, asking to be read for their intelligence”  – aging bodies are sending invaluable messages that we are messing up  because the people doing the delving are biased against what they are looking for, seeking only confirmation of youth as our optimum state, painting anything leading away from that ideal state, particularly anything leading toward death, as detrimental pernitious nocuous.  To toss out the suggestion that youth is sorely lacking in crucial ways compared to old age.  While some of the most “learned” might have been  flat-out offended by such a thought, I have no doubt many would have ordered their own copy.

I like to think that most of the people I talked with would agree with Hillman’s argument that we need fresh language around aging, drawing on “all the terms associated with character, such as ‘honor,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘authority,’ ‘prudence,’ ‘grace,’ ‘depth,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘courage,’ ‘constancy,’ ‘loyalty.’

Gerontology is a young science, introduced at the time of Freud & rooted in holding  old age to be a problem, as pathological in nature (as in morbid, diseased), something to ultimately be overcome by science.  Well, Freud was wrong about the aging brain & specialists have been just as wrong in seeing aging ever upward as something to be defeated.  As I learned this summer, while there are specialists who still see youth as the ideal & old age as hopelessly problematic, there are many who recognize that aging offers something to which youth can only wishfully aspire.

What I’d give to have read The Force of Character  in early summer, to have tucked a copy in my backpack, to have hauled it out, quoted, sparked conversations that rippled across the conference!  To have helped dig up the old roots of gerontology, replanting them in a better environment, in richer soil, where youth can be recognized for all it is not, where age can be honored for all it is rather than castigated for what it is not.  Where specialists researchers scientists look upon aging as a golden opportunity to grow wise, to develop understanding & nurture insight – – to build character.



Author: auntdeev

playfulness coach, life enthusiast & general instigator, ENTJ, cat lover

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