A lovely piece in the Science section of this week’s New York Times talks about what William James called the psychologist’s fallacy: “assuming incorrectly that one knows what someone else is experiencing.” Meeting a woman who had just lost her husband of 70 years, Dr. Marc Agronin presumed that she would be grief-stricken. Just the opposite, in fact. The new widow had endured decades with a gruff, verbally abusive man, was happy to be released, and made the most of the five years that remained to her.
Once again, “the bull looks different once you enter in the ring.” Presumptions about what old age is like tend to be both inaccurate and unduly negative, especially when it comes to nursing homes, Agronin notes. Not only does he encounter intimacy in many forms, he notes that in 15 years, “I have never heard a patient say that he or she was afraid of death. Sometimes there is acceptance, other times anticipation, but most often it is not a great concern.” Not what I would have thought either, until I started talking to the old-old myself.