a failure of imagination

I just finished How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, by Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist. It was Agronin who introduced me to the psychologist’s fallacy, and he reiterates the point in a clip from a Today Show appearance, cautioning against unduly negative assumptions about the lives of the old old. “We have to be very careful and not project our own fears of aging,” he explains. “Their lives can be way better than we imagine.”

The operative phrase: “can be.”  Not “will be.” That’s the problem with NBC’s perky title for the segment: “Put your fears about aging to rest.”  Hedging that bet, with no apparent irony, is a crawl full of grim dementia and suicide statistics. The same split personality is evident in comments from Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical officer.  Pointing out that baby boomers are in fact going to die, she says, “The question is, how do you embrace that second half of your life, and own it?”  The answer:  “Live a big life, do it right, and slide out at home plate!”  Sounds great, but what if all you’ve managed is a medium-sized life? What if you break your hip rounding third?  She’s as deep in denial as those mortality-dodging baby boomers. Some of us will slide home in style and some will totter; some of the former will be chain-smokers and some of the latter virtuous vegans. As Agronim writes, “We cannot escape the uncertainty of it all.”

Contact with old people brings home the enormous variation in their circumstances, both physical and psychological, and in their adaptations to those circumstances.  Such encounters force us to recalibrate, to question assumptions, to swear to avoid or struggle to emulate. The realizations can be pragmatic (no white belts!) or profound.  Agronim writes, “Face-to-face encounters with older individuals force us to look momentarily into an eternal abyss and trigger unanswerable questions about life and death that can bring wonder as easily as fear and despair.”  

I have to admit that my deepest fear at the moment is aesthetic. The giant Miami Jewish Health Systems operation where he’s the mental health director looks like a low-end Disney World hotel, and I’m pretty sure all that teal and taupe would send me over the deep end. I don’t want fake Chippendale either, and hold the damn botanical prints.  O God.  Deep breath. Agronim tells many moving stories of friendship and intimacy flowering in those linoleumed hallways, and urges us to stop focusing on physical and mental decline:  “The true failure here is not old age; rather, it is the failure of our own creativity and willingness to conceive that life up until its last moments has its own ways and meanings.” A failure of imagination.

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