Confronted By the Reality of Aging

Posted by Bill Esteb on Jun 29th 2022

I recently attended the 50-year anniversary of a business I was employed at between 1980 to 1985. There were about 150 of us who showed up to give thanks, acknowledge the business owner and renew acquaintances with others we used to work with.

After 40 years, many of the faces were of strangers. Only after glancing down at the name tag could I identify the owner of the unfamiliar face and body.

My, have we aged.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar by attending a high school or college reunion. It struck me more than I thought it would.

I was reminded how our lifestyle choices have a profound effect on how we age. For some, the years have not been a friend.

Reminds me of the Mickey Mantle quote, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’ have taken better care of myself.”

Some had put on an extra 50 pounds. Others were walking with the help of a cane. Another mentioned his heart attack and two strokes. Another, his second knee replacement. But it wasn’t just the physical health that had deteriorated for so many. There was the happy-go-lucky fellow who took over my job 40 years ago who now seemed to have a bitter, angry old man attitude.

We don’t just age physically. In fact, I wonder if our intellectual and emotional outlook have a greater effect on our aging than we give them credit.

My point? Besides applying these observations to our own health choices, you might be inclined to give your patients a gentle reminder of what lies ahead.

Granted, most people aren’t saving enough for retirement and don’t have enough life insurance to preserve the lifestyle for those they might leave behind. So, attempting to enroll patients in taking better care of themselves is probably a pipe dream, but you have an opportunity to influence the future lives of your patients by simply some asking questions.

Here are some ideas you might want to try. Careful. Death, which is closely linked to aging, is the last taboo topic. In other words, tread lightly.

1. Find out if one or more of their parents have passed. If so, at what age did they die. “How long do you think you’ll live?” Or framed a bit more proactively, “To what age are you hoping to live to?”

2. “In five-year’s time, do you see yourself being as healthy, less healthy or healthier than you are today?” Listen closely and be ready to ask a follow up question about the widely held belief that aging must automatically be accompanied with increasing disability.

3. “It’s frequently mentioned that children today are less likely to live as long as their parents. Why do you think that is?” Find out if the patient has heard this warning, whether they believe it, and what they may be doing to avoid it with their own children.

Use these questions to stimulate meaningful conversations about death and dying. Be prepared to reveal your own perspective—but only if asked. Be ready to offer suggestions (on a future visit) to improve longevity and healthy aging for those who seem interested.

And while you may have few takers, you’re sure to learn lot in the process. And something even more valuable. Because you showed up curious and non-judgmental, you’ve created a new level of professional intimacy. Helpful, since death is 100% certain—whether we talk about it or not.