If I ever wind up in a nursing home, I want Dr. Marc E. Agronin to be my psychiatrist. Because more than anything, his new book, How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey Into the Heart of Growing Old, demonstrates his dedication, compassion and skill.
Take the story of Aron, an 84-year-old Auschwitz survivor. His children come into Agronin’s office pleading for a second opinion, even though their insurance won’t cover it. Aron's primary care physician has diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s and won’t approve further tests. Yet the children think their father’s symptoms — confusion, plus impaired speech and movement — have come on too quickly to constitute Alzheimer’s.
Agronin listens carefully, ultimately agrees with them and doggedly navigates a gantlet of insurance bureaucrats to order a brain scan. The test reveals a tumor that is affecting the man’s movement and speech — and that would have killed him quickly had it not been detected. After brain surgery, Aron recovers fully, then drives to Agronin’s office to thank him in person.
Agronin’s book is filled with good stories like this one — tales of the many patients (averaging 90 years of age) he has encountered as a geriatric psychiatrist at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital, one of the country’s largest nursing homes.
Not all the stories are happy ones, though.
Agronin sees his fair share of people who have depression or dementia. But even these patients inspire hopeful reflection. In one chapter, a woman irrationally convinced that her children are stealing from her writes a cruel note disinheriting them — and never speaks to them again. Suddenly bereft of visiting relatives, she creates a thriving social network for herself at the nursing home. This reminds Agronin that his job is to focus on his patients’ present and future, not their past, and that this focus “is not an act of absolution but one of wisdom and adaptation, and serves as a necessary act of humanity in the final stages of life.”
His depictions of his patients — and his ruminations about what he has learned from them — are the book’s strengths. These stories give a voice to the often overlooked and dehumanized people who live in nursing homes, and they are illuminating and interesting in the way all good anecdotes should be.