An 04/30/11 New York Times article on Dr. Marc Agronin tags him as a “rare bird.” I agree 100%, but not because he one of only seventeen geriatric psychologists in Florida. What makes him even rarer to me is that he apparently treats elderly patients without treating them like they are elderly.
That is my #1 gripe with the geriatric psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors that have crossed my path – almost all of them treat their patients as if they are old. When I set out to find a counselor for a grannie client whose heart was tenderized by memories of a first love killed in the early days of World War II, I sought one who would treat her as if she was whole. I found our answer in Kim Vargas, who had little experience working with the elderly (a plus) & whose specialty was transitioning professional women into motherhood. A specialist in transitioning – EXACTLY what I needed! And Kim lived up to my expectations, always treating Anne like the vibrant, in-the-moment person she was, rather than some old lady suffering from dementia.
My guess is that she has a lot in common with Marc Agronin, author of the recently released, The End of Old Age ( terribly titled, but an awesome read).
Like Kim, Dr. Agronin treats the people under his care more like friends than patients. He connects with them on the human level, about as far from a “there but for the grace of God goes God” sort of physician.
Although his first book – How We Age – came out seven years ago, I only just discovered him, thanks to a review of his current release. Having devoured The End of Old Age, am reading his articles (from the New York Times & Wall Street Journal to Scientific American Mind).
While some people joke that continuous care communities & nursing homes are “God’s waiting room,” Dr. Agronin experiences the Miami Jewish Home, where he works, as a treasure house. Kim loved working with Anne, with an elderly woman who could not remember the day or date from moment to moment, but who walked with a spring in her step, a ready smile & an eagerness to connect – she showed her psychologist a side of aging generally ignored in textbooks & scholarly articles. The sort of person Dr. Agronin cherishes & celebrates in his writing.
In one of his articles, Dr. Agronin cautions that sometimes our best hope for an elder’s perpetual sadness is not to heal the pain, but simply share it. He respects sorrow & grief, sees its place rather than trying to eradicate it, understands that elders might not be seeking medicine, treatment or therapy, but simply the attentive presence of others who are present & connected.
Perhaps the rarest thing about Dr. Agronin is his willingness, eagerness to learn from his patients. Rare, indeed! Instead of insisting that his elderly patients fit into his model of “old age,” he takes his cues from them. In place of stereotype all-knowing specialist, he is open to learning, to sharing the riches he culls from his patients – the realization that he’s never heard a patient speak of being afraid of death; that while there may be acceptance or anticipation, those concerns are minor, that life is being lived; that while youngers typically imagine the pain of aging, they rarely envision the joys it opens, the new pursuit of unexpected experiences, even when one is fragile, even when their personal space is a bed. As he quotes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – For age is opportunity no less Than youth itself, though in another dress; And as the evening twilight fades away, The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
The End of Old Age is informative, inspiring & practical, with action steps for aging expansively. It woke me up to the reality that the people I need to reach out to aren’t simply older friends, their families & caregivers – youngers of all ages need to be part of the discussion about aging. It won’t do much good to talk to 60-somethings on up if 10 year olds are dressing up as decrepit old people to celebrate their 100th day of school (seriously!), 39 year olds get “over the hill” birthday cards & folks under fifty consider growing old to be a fate worse than death.
My heart felt thanks to Dr. Agronin for recognizing that, as a culture, we lack sufficient descriptive language around aging up into years unimagined fifty years ago & stirring up interest in creating a new lexicon so we can talk about it using positive, life affirming wording. My thanks for his books, his sharing his experiences, his example of being open to what our olders elders ancients are feeling saying showing.
Marc Agronin is, indeed, a rare bird. Here’s hoping he teaches us all how to soar into our 70s, 80s, 90s, 100+ celebrating a new capacity for growth & creativity, for the development of wisdom resilience joy.