Every day, Marc Agronin witnesses how joy can enhance people's final years. As the medical director of mental health and clinical research at one of the nation's largest nursing homes, Florida's Miami Jewish Health Systems, for over a decade, Agronin plays an active role in improving the lives of people with varying degrees of dementia. Better than anyone, he knows how fulfilling the older years can be when people can live with dignity, warmth and creativity.
Blending the latest research with his patient's life stories, Agronin shares his expertise with us in his new book, How We Age: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Growing Old. Agronin's message is simple but powerful: This aging process is not all decline; everyone — no matter how old — can experience renewal. And the more positive a living environment a person has — especially for those with dementia — the happier that growth can be.
Q. How did you get the idea for this book?
A. The biggest fear people have is losing their memory. Yet people can continue to grow and thrive even if they have impaired memory. So I really want to show what lies beyond that and the ways that life's final years can be fulfilling and wonderful.
Q. What experience did you draw on?
A. One thing that interests me in working with older individuals is hearing their stories and histories. After so many years of working with them, I was drawn to trying to write about them — to honor them through their stories and sharing the wonders of their lives with others.
Q. What do you hope your readers take away from these stories?
A. Be open to possibilities for growth and change in your parents. That is really the essential message. We make assumptions that when humans reach a certain age, change is no longer possible, and life becomes about decline. But that is simply not the reality — it's only half the picture. People grow and develop and change in startling ways. And often the reason that individuals later in life can make these changes is that they are actively involved with other individuals, especially younger individuals who give them support and inspiration, and vice versa.
Q. Of all the people in your book, who comes to mind first?
A. I write about a woman who had been married many years and was newly widowed. At our first appointment, I was expecting her to talk about being so depressed. In fact, she was happy after losing her husband. He had been controlling and unloving, and she was finally free. That story illustrates the essential points of working with older individuals: Don't make assumptions about what aging means to a person.