By Tom Ehrich
My personal librarian – a/k/a my beloved wife – ordered a book for us both to read. It is having a big impact in our home.
The book is “Being Mortal,” by a surgeon and Harvard medical professor named Atul Gawande. The Times described it as “a personal meditation on how we can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness and approaching death.”
I have many pages to go, but I can share a couple of early takeaways:
First, the medical profession struggles to deal with aging. The number of people practicing geriatric medicine is actually shrinking, even as the number of people entering the realm of geriatric care is burgeoning. It seems, the author suggests, that prospective physicians aren’t attracted to a field where much of the work is boring and where the fix-it-at-all-costs dynamic of modern medicine doesn’t pertain.
Second, much of end-of-life medicine should be about handling the end of life, not trying to forestall it. Our bodies wear out, he says. Later and later, of course, but the end does come. Not because aging is a problem that should have been solved, not because someone failed, rather just because that’s the way we are made.
For some the end stages happen suddenly with no apparent warning, like the sudden downward plunge of a roller-coaster. For others the final stages are a gradual downward slope, perhaps with occasional ups among the downs, but inevitably trending to zero (or what a person of faith would call “victory.”) There’s no predicting which will be our experience.
What I take from this for now is that my work is to live as fully as I can. Skip the morbid fascination with twinges and changes in appearance. Just live. Let my hair go gray. Try to keep my weight in check but not expect a 20-year-old’s buff physique. Understand that some things will happen – like losing teeth, losing some flexibility and dexterity, seeing poorly. Just press on to do my work as long as I feel like working, maintain my property as long as I am able, and use my mind, body and faculties fully.
I found his counsel helpful. Our culture’s obsession with youthfulness doesn’t help anyone. It makes an idol of those who are young, slim and beautiful. It makes middle-age feel like a defeated army in retreat. And it makes elderly years and old-age feel like mistakes. All ages should be about dreaming, taking risks, learning and growing. All should be about purpose and making a difference in the world.