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Thumbing through the pages

Aging not 'one-sided,' doctor says

Dr. Marc Agronin has learned a good deal from his elderly patients as medical director for mental health and clinical research at Miami Jewish Health Systems. Most important, said the geriatric psychiatrist, he has learned that the “true scales of aging are not one-sided. You can’t list the problems and complications of aging without also tallying the possibilities and memories.”

Agronin’s book, “How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old,” draws on his experience counseling the residents of the Miami facility, showing how his own views on aging were transformed by these encounters.

The author will speak about his book on Nov. 29 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades as part of the center’s program, James H. Grossmann Memorial Jewish Book Month, which this year is spread out over several months. (For a listing of upcoming events, visit http://jccotp.org/category.aspx?catid=94.)

“Aging is more than an inevitable decline,” said Agronin. “It can also be a period of vitality, wisdom, creativity, and, ultimately, hope.”

The author, who holds degrees in psychology and philosophy and has written numerous articles on the subject, agrees that “all too often, we associate aging only with decline, loss, illness, and death.” Even doctors, he said, may hold that “biased perspective.”

Still, he said, “On a daily basis, I’m educated, humbled, inspired, and energized by the residents” at the Miami home.

Agronin pointed out that according to recent studies, centenarians are the fastest-growing age group. As more and more people live into their 80s and 90s, he finds that most of his patients – and he has treated thousands – are in that age range. Since women live longer, most of his patients are women.

The doctor pointed out that while there are common age-related changes everyone faces – such as a slow down in memory-processing speed, muscle power, visual acuity, and hearing range – this is highly variable, depending on one’s genes and lifestyle.

He added, however, “For me, the point of the book is to acknowledge limitations, but emphasize the need to balance them out with what we gain.” And that may include “knowledge, experience, seeing things in broader, more practical ways – what we call wisdom.”

In addition, he said, there is often an increase in creativity.

“What we see in lots of surveys and research is that older individuals have less stress and worry and greater degrees of well-being,” he said. “Too often, we get focused on the downside of aging and don’t realize that there are positive elements as well.”

Agronin said that in his work with survivors of the Shoah, he has learned how resilient they are.

“Often, they are inspirational,” he said. “They not only survived but could build new lives. They’re not a bitter, sorrowful group. Some of them are the most vital, enlivening individuals I’ve ever worked with.”

“I’ve learned from my patients,” he said. “It’s an honor to care for them and I thank them all the time.”

The doctor suggested that young people take the opportunity to record the stories of parents and grandparents, whether interviewing them or having them write down something about their lives.

“They’re gems we can learn from,” he said. “What inspires us might be a single story or a recipe we got from an older person.”

For their part, he said, older individuals should have the confidence to go to their children and grandchildren and speak to them, “teaching them what they’ve gone through and leaving a living legacy. Interactions might not seem influential, but they may leave profound effects.”

In a recent blog for the Huffington Post, Agronin wrote about the “Betty White effect,” pointing out “someone her age being cool.” He suggested that as the media becomes more accepting and willing to spotlight people of that age, societal perceptions will change.

“Whether a person is 40, 70, or 90, we have to work together across generations to keep people vitally involved,” he said, adding, “If you have a mission, it trumps everything.”

The elderly, he said, have the same passions they had when they were young – whether current events, religious affairs, relationships, or family. In his book, he said, he wrote of a 98-year-old woman “who fell madly in love. He jilted her, and she died. That could be looked at as a tragic view of aging, but also that she loved so deeply her heart was broken. Think about that passion.”

“We need to get beyond our stereotypes,” he said, not only for the sake of those who are elderly today but for our own sakes, as well.

What: “How we Age,” presented as part of James H. Grossmann Memorial Jewish Book Month

Who: Marc Agronin, author of “How we Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old”

When: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 8 p.m.

Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades

Cost: $8, JCC members; $10, non-members

Information: (201) 408 -1411

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