December 17, 2018

Improving the aging experience: completing life’s story

My interest in the active aged has been stimulated recently by hanging out with several of them and reading Dr. Atul Gawande’s powerful book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” My curiosity was heightened, of course, by an event that occurred last October — my 80th birthday.

“For human beings,” Gawande writes, “life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments where something happens. … Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.” 

Much of Gawande’s book is devoted to the sick and their final years or days. But his words also extend to old people in good health, or at least in fairly good shape.

I happen to know such people, including members of the Brandeis Men’s Group, one of the organizations around the country that help support Brandeis University. As Roberto Loiederman wrote of the local men’s chapter in the Jewish Journal in February 2013, “Finding a place where you feel at home is crucial for retired men. Even though you may still be mentally and physically active, when you’re no longer working, you feel cut off from lifetime routines. For retirees, it’s not uncommon to feel uprooted.”

Al Gomer, 91, retired head of a steel company, started the group several years ago. Men who had accompanied their wives to meetings of a women’s Brandeis support group, part of the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, enjoyed getting together. The men formalized their casual getting together into the Brandeis Men’s Group. That happened around the country, and it’s all been combined — men and women — into the Brandeis National Committee.

The local group meets for breakfast monthly. They have speakers ranging from political candidates to physicians who explain the more complex part of medical practice. There are book groups. Some members volunteer in food banks. A major activity is raising money for Brandeis’ Sustaining The Mind Project, which is researching Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many other neurological ailments. Brandeis National Committee chapters in other parts of the Los Angeles area and nationally are engaged in similar efforts.

The Brandeis Men’s Group combination of fellowship and good works is an example of what is being studied by experts finding ways to enrich old age. Why is it that some older people flourish and others decline? Granted that Alzheimer’s is incurable and the journey into oblivion faced by those diagnosed with it is still unstoppable. But what of the majority, who escape that fate? How can they remain physically and mentally active? Are they sharing their wisdom with the world and helping others, or are they home watching television alone all day?

“Why is it if you feel you have a valuable role in the lives of others, you actually have a better aging experience?” asked Tara L. Gruenewald, an assistant professor who heads the Healthy Aging Lab at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology. “Why do you tend to be healthier over the years as compared with folks who don’t feel that way, who don’t feel they’re playing that vital role in the lives of others?”

Research, she said, is showing the value of knitting clubs, photography clubs, anything that has a social function and challenges individuals to learn new things. These are examples of ways we might engage folks with challenging activities in a way that keeps folks wanting to do them, because crosswords get boring after a while.

“Get people out of their houses,” she said. “As we get older, people spend a lot of time watching TV and are engaged in passive activities. There is a precipitous increase in the later adult years in the time spent watching TV.”

The USC gerontology school is engaged in a novel examination of ways to improve the aging experience through its Zekenim project, financed by a three-year, $250,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

Now in its early stages, Zekenim will involve older Jewish people — 220 of them — brought together in small groups for two-hour workshops over a three-week period. They’ll talk about turning points in their lives, sharing them with each other and with young high school and college artists who will translate the stories into pictures.

Afterward, the work will be exhibited, both in shows and online. The participants, their friends and families will view the work, along with the young people who created the works and other members of the Jewish community. Instead of being shunted aside, the older Jews will be the stars, along with the young artists who illustrated their lives. 

“We know the life-review process has some benefits,” Gruenewald told me. “We also think that the visual translation of life experiences into an artistic form that can be shared with the community also gives credibility to that life’s story and permits one to share it with others.”

As is the case with members of the Brandeis Men’s Group and similar organizations, the Zekenim participants will be completing their life’s story. The Zekenim folks will be doing it by actually telling their stories while engaging with peers and young people. Others will engage in different ways, such as raising money for Brandeis research on the brain and nervous system. Hopefully, these varied chapters in their stories will lead them to an active conclusion to their lives, rather than one spent on the sidelines.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).