By Dick Koehneke
“Aging is the solution and not the problem.” That’s a key sentence in a new book titled The End of Old Age. The author is Dr. Marc Agronin. He is a geriatric psychiatrist who has served since 1999 as the director of mental health services, clinical research, and the outpatient memory center at Miami Jewish Health in Miami, Florida.
I think it’s so easy to become focused on (even obsessed with) the increasing physical limitations that come with age that we lose sight of the things that we gain as we age. The physical body is the outer self that we can see, but what matters most is what’s on the inside. For me it’s important to remember the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:16: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”
Aging has many advantages. One of the main advantages of aging, Dr. Agronin writes, is the development of wisdom that comes as a result of learning, trial and error, failure, ambition, and the increasing nearness of death. He defines five different forms or expressions of wisdom.
- The savant possesses much knowledge and the ability to show it and share it.
- The sage has good judgment and can guide others in their decision-making and problem-solving.
- The curator (my word might be “caregiver”) possesses great empathy and connects emotionally with others.
- The creator has rich imagination and actively works on creative endeavors.
- The seer has deep spiritual insight and can offer guidance, support and inspiration.
Not all people demonstrate these qualities, he writes. On the other hand, some people can show various qualities in different situations. The point is that these expressions of wisdom develop only with age.
To repeat a key thought: “Aging is the solution and not the problem.”
A helpful concept for me is that of age points. Dr. Agronin defines an age point as an event or situation that disrupts our initial ability to understand and cope with it. It exposes a gap between the challenges of a life event and our existing strengths, values, skills, and connections. We may feel stunned, uncertain, and paralyzed. An age point exposes a weakness but is loaded with potential for tremendous growth. He says that age points fall into four distinct stages:
- Event: the circumstances strong enough to prompt an age point
- Suspension: a period of profound uncertainty and perhaps paralysis
- Reckoning: the process of confronting the gap between what we have and what we need
- Resolution: a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling and doing that bridges the gap and allows us to regain our balance and move forward
Another rich insight is the concept of age culture. Individually, your age culture is composed of all your abilities and experiences, Dr. Agronin says. He says that to understand your own age culture, ask yourself these questions:
Who was I? What have I learned, accomplished, and experienced in my past? What are my essential
skills and expertise? The answers represent your reserves of wisdom.
Who am I? What do I spend most of my time doing, or with whom do I spend most of my time? What are my current activities and passions? The answers show you what your purpose in life is.
Who will I be? What do I want to see, do, and experience in the future? With whom do I want to spend my time? What do I want to leave behind for others? The answers tell you how you can renew or reinvent yourself.
The author devotes the final thirty pages to an action plan to help identify, develop, and optimize your age-given strengths and appreciate your own age culture. The action plan consists of five basic steps:
- Define your reserve (defined and described earlier in the book).
- Examine your resilience (also presented previously).
- Consider pathways for renewal and reinvention.
- Consider your legacy.
- Plan a ritual or ceremony to celebrate your aging.
I’m not sure I have the inclination or the discipline to go through all the steps in the action plan. The idea of a ritual or ceremony really doesn’t appeal to me. If you decide to get the book, you may come to a different conclusion about the action plan.
Dr. Agronin honestly and hopefully addresses the issue of dementia and/or physical impairment. He shares a variety of positive possibilities for people in this “ninth stage” of life (a term drawn from the research of Erik Erikson). He writes, “I have seen the stunning rejuvenation of individuals when newfound love or purpose comes along. Even a tiny glimmer of hope combined with the recruitment of social supports can buffer and sometimes transform their profound loss and grief. It is possible to thrive in the ninth stage with the help of others and a determination to work around barriers and identify the best approaches.” Insights, observations, ideas and strategies about the “ninth stage” appear throughout the book.
There is much more in Dr. Agronin’s book than I have written about here, including some very enlightening and encouraging case studies. I appreciate his respect, appreciation and affection for people older than himself.
This passage of Scripture comes to mind: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.’ ” (Psalm 92:12-15)