Thomas Cole, A gerontologist and professor of medical humanities, he had two hip replacements, two back surgeries and a severe case of pneumonia in his 60s. He became depressed and wondered what the future would hold.
"I wanted to know what I expected," says Dr. Cole, right, co-editor of "The Oxford Book on Aging" and author of "The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America." , he turned to 12 men, all of high profile and over 80 years, a period that some call the Fourth Age, considered the last of the four stages of adulthood. I wanted to learn how they dealt with the decline and if they could find meaning in life even when it was nearing its end.
In his new book "The Old Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders," Dr. Cole, now 70, discovered that some problems that consumed him were no longer important for many of the older men, and that they generally did not they were afraid of dying, but fear of dementia.
In an edited interview, Dr. Cole talks about his conversations with these men and why their perspectives are important, as the percentage of people 85 years or older in the United States is growing rapidly.
He selected very successful people like Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve, Ram Dass, teacher of Eastern spirituality, both deceased, and journalist Hugh Downs. Why not a wider cross section of people?
I chose these people because I admired them and wanted to hear what they had to say. I also had a feeling they were as fragile as anyone else. Everyone faced the same questions as all men: am I still a man? Do i still care? I'm loved? What is the meaning of my life? We ask those questions throughout life, but they become more pressing because the finish line is in sight.
How do you reconcile virility with decreased physical abilities?
The issue of virility seems to evaporate more than I would have thought. In the Third Age (65-80), men continue to work hard to maintain their strength and power of middle age. In the Fourth Age, for the most part, they are no longer interested in masculinity as a defining category. If his ability to have sex had disappeared, so be it. They have other ways to keep their relationships strong. There is no sense of failure.
Were there any exceptions to this?
One refused to say he was old. He was just over 80 years old and went to the gym. He married a woman 20 years younger. He died a couple of years ago of cancer. I wondered how he would have adapted to become fragile. People adapt even if they are terrified. At some point, you stop trying to hold on to what is gone. You embrace what it is. Hugh Downs said he exercises every day to maintain his muscular strength, but accepts the biological process of old age.
What about the fear of death?
It was common to hear: "I don't want to die, but I'm not afraid of dying. I'm ready." I cheered up because I think the fear of death is a problem for all of us. The possibility that this fear dissipates as we age is a testament to the importance of a life well lived. They would say: "I have had a good life. Somehow, I have left the world as a better place. I am loved."
Do you think men and women age differently?
I cannot speak with any authority about this, but I believe that many stereotypes are valid. Women are more connected with friends and family. They have been caregivers and can be taken care of. Men, especially in that generation, live to work. They often disconnect from their feelings and do not want to accept the need for attention, but those traditional gender scripts are not as rigid when people reach 80. Men do more housework. They are better in caring and express more emotions.
Where do they find meaning in their old age?
To love and be loved. Your world and your aspirations are reduced a little. Therefore, love acquires a broader meaning. Paul Volcker, who was still working, found sense in getting involved in things and feeling needy.
You have written about aging for more than 40 years. How have your own views on aging changed?
I have become more compassionate with others and with my own body. In the past, when I saw an old man or an old woman in a walker, or using a cane, I used to avoid them. Now I look at such a person and think "OK. That could be and will be me." I feel solidarity instead of fear. Of course, fragility is not something I hope or hope for.
How have our attitudes as a society changed?
Is not sufficient. We have ideals for the "old youth", these useful elderly people who go to classes and exercise, travel and volunteer. It's okay to aspire to that. But we still fear the other half of that equation: the "old woman." We do not take seriously the importance of the lives of people who are fragile, die and suffer from dementia.
Do you feel calmer or more worried about entering the Fourth Age?
I have less fear. I know that many of these changes are inevitable and I will have to face them, and that is scary. At the same time, I calm down because I see how old people face them and how they continue to flourish. It is mostly because they have good and positive answers to these questions: Do they love me? What is the meaning of my life? Am I still relevant? Am i still a man?
Write to Clare Ansberry at [email protected]
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