The word “Old” is so laden with negativity, we hardly ever use it. Except, of course, if you really want to go for the jugular and then it’s usually accompanied by old fart, old bag, old dog with no new tricks, and possibly “old timer” but that is kind of dear and saved for men. Women aren’t afforded the same courtesy and become “cute or sweetie.”
I stumbled into the current use of the word “old” when I dived into the hardest book I’ve ever read – Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. She is an MD but is so professionally secure she doesn’t put it on the cover. The book is a difficult read because Aronson doesn’t cut corners: she looks at how we think of aging at least in the U.S. (we try incredibly hard not to), takes the white coats off of doctors who don’t know much about their aging patients’ needs and not trained to talk about dying or death, and challenges the medical establishment, governments, writers, influencers, and readers to recalibrate our thinking.
Hence the title of Elderhood
If you use the word elder, these descriptors show up: experience, knowledge, wise – the words that native people and some countries choose to show their respect for the old.
Soon, Aronson moves into the medical world. According to Aronson, “American medicine became more interested in cosmetics and catastrophes than in promoting and preserving human health and well-being. In the 21st century, it worships machines, genes, neurons, hearts, and tumors, but cares little about sanity, walking, eating, frailty, or suffering. It values adults over the young and old (pediatricians and geriatricians make at least half as much as surgeons, etc.), and hospitals and intensive care units over homes and clinics.” The lowest paid workers are usually those providing home care to the elderly and the disabled.
We’re Already There
The urgency of Aronson’s thesis in the book is that there are boatloads of elders coming to our shores (never mind the wall):
- Older adults are currently 17% of the U.S. population
- People in their 70s are the fastest growing segment of the working population
- Baby boomers are entering legal old age at a rate of 10,000 per day
- The number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060
- Doctors get between 4 – 27 hours over 4 years of class-time training in geriatrics
- There are approximately 7,500 geriatricians practicing in the U.S – 7 geriatricians listed in my state of Washington
- Most new drugs are tested on middle-aged adults – not specifically on older people
According to Aronson, there is much work to be done in order to change how we not only think about aging but how we treat it. She is a professor and lecturer at the University of California, directs the UCSF Health Humanities program, has a regular clinical practice and – wait for it – makes house calls!
A Certain Age
As a woman of a certain age myself I found Elderhood a lot to take in, intellectually and emotionally: my own inevitable death (yep, anti-aging is only skin deep – if that), the progression of change at any age, and how to balance loss (in our bodies as well as friends and family) with acceptance and joy in the days we have, no matter what that day brings.
After finishing Aronson’s book I became aware of my own “othering” of older people and set out to change myself. I want to look past the wrinkles and acknowledge and appreciate the person they are – still in there wanting to be recognized after all these years.