March 4th, 2011 at 5:58 pm
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‘How We Age’ poetic, respectful look at the aging process

by Carol Bursack

As I read “How We Age,” by Marc E. Agronin, MD, I couldn’t help but think that that he should be held up as a role model in the medical profession. His dedication to understanding the process of aging, his respect for those experiencing the indignities that aging can bring, along with his recognition that the aged also have hopes and dreams, are worthy of the highest praise. He manages to get across all of these concepts, and much more, in “How We Age.”

Agronin begins his tale with descriptions of his medical school training. At first, Agronin was worried about becoming desensitized to the humanity of the corpses he and his fellow students were assigned for their training purposes. His description of the way many medical students adjust to the fact that they spend a huge amount of time cutting up a preserved human body is so vivid that the reader can almost smell the formaldehyde.

Agronin writes, “I was particularly worried about how my growing lack of sensitivity toward the corpse could easily creep one step back to the extremely debilitated, aged patient.” He needn’t have worried. His sensitivity to human dignity seems to have been inborn. Rather than becoming hardened to the realities of the aging process, he has immersed himself in the complexities we face as time takes away from our physical selves, yet experience gives us each unique gifts. His experience working with elders at a nursing home helped his understanding that frail elders are still functioning human beings. He writes, “Unfortunately, we often fail to see the positive elements in the lives of our elders because we are so focused on the physical or mental decline of aging.”

Though Agronin learned early on that many of his fellow doctors saw little glamour in working with our aging population, considering nursing homes “God’s waiting room,” he followed his calling and is now the psychiatrist at the Miami Jewish Health Systems, the site of one of the largest nursing homes in the United States.

“How We Age” is divided into five parts and is well organized, however Agronin never lets simple organization overshadow the emotional impact of his writing. He’s a storyteller who illustrates his points with human experience.

Agronin continues to wrestle with the same question many families and clinicians face – when to give up “treating” an elder – when to quit trying to “cure” that which can’t be cured.

He states that his own “bias” is that we often stop treating too soon. In the section titled, “The Seamstress,” Agronin says, “We certainly cannot reverse aging, nor can we effectively treat many of the illnesses encountered in our older individuals. However, we can do something about the concerns that often drive them toward choosing death: loss of autonomy, loss of dignity, and loss of life-affirming activities.”

Agronin quotes poets and philosophers throughout the book in a manner that lends the grace and beauty of a well written novel to a book about the ultimate fact of life – that our bodies age and we eventually die. “How We Age” is available online and in book stores.

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