That’s the title of an article by UW professor Katherine Woodward, in which she calls for “a moratorium on wisdom” as an ideal for the old. The notion of “wisdom” has always given me pause: too woo-woo, too subjective, and definitely not the exclusive purview of the old. We recognize the wise child with a shiver when we encounter one, and we’ve all met plenty of utterly uninteresting old people.
I just encountered that saying — attributed by a doctor to his fellow geriatricians — and it drives home the fact that stereotypes are especially misleading when it comes to the old old. Or, as Claudia Kawis, director of the 90+ Study, puts it (a little less pithily), “Variability really is the hallmark of aging.”
I just finished How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, by Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist. It was Agronin who introduced me to the psychologist’s fallacy, and he reiterates the point in a clip from a Today Show appearance, cautioning against unduly negative assumptions about the lives of the old old. “We have to be very careful and not project our own fears of aging,” he explains. “Their lives can be way better than we imagine.”
At an afternoon session of this year’s Age Boom Academy for journalists there was a critical mass of geriatricians at the table: Robert Butler and Harrison Bloom, both of the International Longevity Institute (which co-sponsors the Academy along with the New York Times), and Rosanne Leipzig of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. I took advantage of this to pop a question I’d written about a few weeks earlier: what makes geriatrics so satisfying?
Older people are not a homogeneous group — something I’d never thought about until I started this project. In fact, writes Dr. Robert in The Longevity Revolution, “there is increasing variability among people as they grow older. Children are much more like one another than are ‘the elderly.’”