At an afternoon session of this year’s Age Boom Academy for journalists there was a critical mass of geriatricians at the table: Robert Butler and Harrison Bloom, both of the International Longevity Institute (which co-sponsors the Academy along with the New York Times), and Rosanne Leipzig of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. I took advantage of this to pop a question I’d written about a few weeks earlier: what makes geriatrics so satisfying?
Dr. Leipzig pulled no punches in her terrific response. Describing herself as a “clinician and educator in the trenches,” she’d briskly dismissed the preceding topic (the potential for “resetting” cells to slow degeneration) as “sexy aging” that deserved no spot on the national agenda. “The type of person who goes into geriatrics has decided to do it anyway” — despite the low pay and reimbursement hassles — “and it’s an incredibly satisfying life,” she responded. Especially if you’re salaried, and most geriatricians work at universities or big healthcare facilities. “Why did I go into it, besides a grandmother?” she continued, adding as an aside, “Everyone goes in because of a grandmother. The other is that it’s probably the most intellectually challenging work I could have found. You have to be the best doctor in the world and then figure out how to apply your knowledge to the older patient. There’s much more heterogeneity than across younger patients. Every patient is a major challenge, with between three and eight chronic conditions, on multiple medications, with different social constructs, and I have to put all this together. I can’t write a prescription and expect them to go home and fill it and deal with it all.” She paused, smiling. “It’s holistic medicine. I go to weddings, I go to funerals, and it’s incredibly satisfying to be that kind of doctor in this day and age.”