But Agronin’s book lacks a cohesive thematic thread that would weave these sketches — and the doctor’s experience — together. Though the author says he wants to offer a “more balanced perspective on aging,” it’s hard to tell what that outlook is, or what he might balance it against. This makes How We Age a series of disjointed (albeit interesting) vignettes about his aging patients, interspersed with quotes from the likes of Cicero and George McGovern, as well as a smattering of psychological theory and science regarding what happens to the human brain and psyche as we age. Intriguing stuff, to be sure, but I waited in vain for the “Aha!” moment that would tie it all together.
What ultimately emerges from this book (though it clearly wasn’t his intent, as there is nothing self-congratulatory about his prose) is that Marc Agronin is an extraordinarily capable geriatric psychiatrist: He respects his patients, cares for them mindfully and well, and works hard to make their last years as fulfilling and meaningful as possible. That’s what makes the book readable. You can’t help liking the author, not to mention his sunny — even if fuzzy — take on aging.
In a December op-ed in The New York Times, Susan Jacoby (author of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age) wrote, “It is chilling to think about becoming helpless in a society that affords only the most minimal support for those who can no longer care for themselves.” Viewed in the context of How We Age, Jacoby’s plaint makes you wonder why there aren’t more Marc Agronins to care for the elderly. It makes you wonder why more elder-care facilities don’t resemble the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital where he works, considered a model of how nursing homes should be run. How does such a large institution manage to care for its many patients so well? None of these issues are answered in the book.
Indeed, intent as he is on telling the stories of his patients, Agronin misses the opportunity to tell his own. What he has learned from his patients — and hopes to pass on to his readers — is “that aging equals vitality, wisdom, creativity, spirit, and, ultimately, hope.” But it’s not his aging patients who offer us the hope of growing old with dignity. It’s doctors like Agronin himself.
O’rya Hyde-Keller is a Rhode Island-based writer and editor.