November 19, 2014

Through a Positive Lens: "Aging" at the Annual Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

As I begin my own journey working with a geriatrician, I was intrigued to see a blog post in the British Medical Journal about the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America earlier this month here in Washington, DC. With 4,000 delegates this year, the gathering is a leading scientific congress on aging.

Blogger Desmond O’Neill -- a geriatrician and cultural gerontologist from Dublin, Ireland – recapped the gathering in such a way that I wish I’d attended the five-day event… or at least part of it.
I’ve been introduced to the philosophy of aging over the past few years by, an excellent website I visit often. The messages from that site are broad and positive, and help readers understand – among other things -- the foolish counter-productivity of anti-aging efforts. There’s no way to stop – or reason to – that fundamental process built into all life on earth. Instead, we should embrace aging, celebrate it, and find in our elderness the special, unique, and wonderful elements we’d have missed if we hadn’t been blessed with the opportunity to live into our senior years.

Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), delivered the keynote address. In it, he described how aging has become integral to the work of all 42 constituent NIH institutes, not just to the National Institute on Aging. No surprise there, as the great wave of Baby Boomers begins to reach critical mass.

As a cultural gerontologist, O’Neill enjoyed a presentation by Dr. Thomas Cole, author of many books, including the Pulitzer-Prize nominee The Journey of Life: The Cultural History of Aging in America. O’Neill describes how Cole -- discussing the meaning of aging through engagement with scholarship in the arts and humanities -- identified three ingredients as intrinsic:
  1. Through compassion we recognize our vulnerability and our emotional, moral and spiritual response to others.
  2. We acknowledge the relationship between knower and the known.
  3. We seek an emphasis on moral and spiritual aspects of growing old, especially meaning. 
O’Neill also enjoyed a presentation by Rita Charon, “the doyenne of narrative medicine,” whose talk celebrated the life of the late Gene Cohen, “whose pioneering insight was that late-life creativity occurred not in spite of old age, but because of it."

It was particularly interesting to me to learn there was lots of discussion about Ezekiel Emmanuel’s article in the October edition of The Atlantic Monthly titled "Why I Want to Die at 75." Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about Emmanuel’s article. While sympathetic with his point of view, I was compelled to outline all the “personally spectacular” things I would have missed if I’d cashed in my chips when I turned 75 ten years ago.

O’Neill liked Hanne Laceulle’s “effective and gentle riposte” to the Emmanuel piece, in which she described how it was contaminated by “three pernicious and persistent popular narratives of ageing.
[1] Active Ageing, highly productivist and with little room for our existential vulnerability;
[2] the decline narrative of ageing; and
[3] the age-defying narrative, with its emphasis on staying young, not acknowledging growth, a self-effacing strategy doomed to fail and in denial of our existential vulnerability.”

O’Neill wraps up his blog post this way:
With ageing we can become our truest selves if we allow ourselves to embrace an alternative notion of activity, that of practicing the right attitudes. Virtue ethics aims at self-realization and flourishing while acknowledging the vulnerability of this striving. It also incorporates our fundamental social embedding, with its benefits and challenges. 
Building resilience towards fragility requires a lifelong process of development and practice of relevant attitudes and qualities, balancing the demands of self and the world in a way that is flexible and context-dependent. In this way we can see practising virtue as trumping the unhelpful tropes of passively surrendering or actively fighting ageing. 
It is tremendously reassuring to see such profound and often challenging debates embedded in mainstream gerontology, and bodes well for liberating the gift of ageing from the tired, negative, and limiting attitudes that persist in public life.

I’ve recently shifted my own focus from fighting Parkinson’s disease to creating the best possible life in the time I have left. I hope the gerontologists at the powwow in DC last week would think I’m on the right track.

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