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Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life

Current price: $20.00
Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021
Bloomsbury Publishing

Staff Reviews

Life, according to Louise Aronson MD is divided into three categories. The first she writes is from birth to 20, the second is from that age to 65. The last is from 65 to death.


The stages have names, understandably. Imagine, she suggests if we referred to the first stage as focused on short, unemployed people rather than childhood. That description, although accurate she states unequivocally, would be ludicrous. Likewise, the middle sector is referred to as adulthood. But what to call the final chapter?


She labels it elderhood and makes a compelling case the name is apt, from giving that as the title of her book to what she offers the reader. The writing is memoir, anecdote, the words of others, from philosophers, poets and essayists, scientists, other health care providers and doctors, and patients she had the privilege to serve during her career. She makes the case that elderhood needs to be held with the same respect, inquiry and importance as the first two. That is not, however, the case.


She tells of a colleague who has his first year medical students write their immediate impressions when he says the word old. He then has them write their first thoughts to the word elder. The differences are telling. Try it. Old, the students wrote, connotes worn out, broken, end of usefulness. Elder, by contrast, led the students to such words as wise, worth listening to, accomplished.


The ages within childhood are recognized as different. The human body changes dramatically between infancy and the teen years. Doctors know that and are given training to take that into consideration when treating patients. The same with adulthood. Doctors know a 20-year-old is far different than a person in their mid-50s. They often don’t know, or are ill equipped to address the differences that happen to a person between their 60s and then what happens when they are in their 70, 80s and beyond.


Too often, people past 65 are seen as “old” and that carries weight, if not erecting a fence around them.


Going back to her days in medical school and residency, Aronson shows by example that treating older people is not high on the list, and that leads to mistreatment, poor treatment and ill-spent dollars. It also, she writes, leads to treatment that causes unnecessary pain and suffering, and death that could have come with more dignity than it often does.


For a variety of reasons gerontology is not pursued by many as a career path in medicine. Among them are poor pay, lack of status and preconceived notions of the futility of trying to treat people who are just going to die.


The loss is not just to the doctors who shy away from developing a specialty that, unless a person dies “young,” will always be a needed part of life. The loss is also to the health care system. Pointing to her own experience, Aronson offers enough examples to indicate a focus on medicine that is programmed to treat people with test after test, intervention after intervention and prescriptions on top of prescriptions often ends up making things worse for the patients and costs the system inordinate and wasteful amounts of money.


She argues a “revolution” is needed in the entire medical education and health care system. In her most basic terms, she says humans need to be the focus, not just the medical specialties driven by science, technology and money.


After receiving her medical degree, Aronson also earned an MFA in writing. The book reflects she learned well, in both disciplines. Elderhood was a Pulitzer finalist for non-fiction in 2019. Her insights have also appeared in the New York Times, the New England Journal of Medicine and other publications. Death is a part of life and most people will live into elderhood. The book is a good read for all.

— Ross Connelly


Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
Winner of the WSU AOS Bonner Book Award

The New York Times bestseller from physician and award-winning writer Louise Aronson--an essential, empathetic look at a vital but often disparaged stage of life, as revelatory as Atul Gawande's Being Mortal.

For more than 5,000 years, "old" has been defined as beginning between the ages of 60 and 70. That means most people alive today will spend more years in elderhood than in childhood, and many will be elders for 40 years or more. Yet at the very moment that humans are living longer than ever before, we've made old age into a disease, a condition to be dreaded, denigrated, neglected, and denied.

Reminiscent of Oliver Sacks, noted Harvard-trained geriatrician Louise Aronson uses stories from her quarter century of caring for patients, and draws from history, science, literature, popular culture, and her own life to weave a vision of old age that's neither nightmare nor utopian fantasy--a vision full of joy, wonder, frustration, outrage, and hope about aging, medicine, and humanity itself.

Elderhood is for anyone who is, in the author's own words, "an aging, i.e., still-breathing human being."

About the Author

Louise Aronson has an MFA in fiction from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and an MD from Harvard Medical School. She has won the Sonora Review prize, the New Millennium short fiction award and has received three Pushcart nominations. She is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California where she cares for diverse, frail older patients and directs the Pathways to Discovery Program, the Northern California Geriatrics Education Center and UCSF Medical Humanities. She lives in San Francisco.

Praise for Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life

“Exquisitely written . . . [Aronson] advocates a new paradigm: a re-balancing act in which technology has a role but the focus returns to care. Unlike the high-tech, algorithmic march of modern medicine, her idea of truly 'personalized medicine' incorporates the patient's past experiences and current expectations. This integrative, humanistic model of geriatrics is rare. One can only hope its practices are adopted swiftly.” —Nature

“Wise and engaging.” —AARP Magazine

“Bracing, always compassionate.” —Wall Street Journal, Best Books About Retirement and Aging of 2019

“A passionate, deeply informed critique of how our healthcare system fails in its treatment of the elderly . . . Vitally important . . . Though the subject of this provocative book is the elderly, its message touches the entire span of human life.” —BookPage

“Eloquent and impressive . . . A landmark work . . . In a world of increasing numbers of older adults, Aronson's highly readable, absorbing, and thought-provoking book should serve as a guide for how our culture must change in order to provide a future in which all of us can age well throughout the span of our lives.” —Changing Aging

“[A] penetrating meditation on geriatrics . . . Aronson's deep empathy, hard-won knowledge, and vivid reportage makes for one of the best accounts around of the medical mistreatment of the old.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“An examination of aging and the human condition encompassing poignant stories and the viewpoints of medical experts, writers, historians, and scientists . . . Empathetic, probing, and often emotionally moving narratives on appreciating the power and the pain of aging.” —Kirkus, starred review

“A bold critique of our anti-aging society and of the medical care seniors receive. . . This book, part memoir, part critique and part prescription, encourages readers to help put an end to the anti-aging industry and its profiteers, to engage in better self-care and to collectively ask the medical community to look at elderhood not as a disease.” —The Missourian

“[A] vast and penetrating analysis…With strong empathy that comes from both a professional understanding of and personal experience with the challenges of aging, Aronson provides an essential guide to how society in general and the health-care industry in particular must recalibrate their approach to providing concerned and competent elder care. Thought provoking and wise, Aronson's memoir-cum-treatise should be required reading for medical professionals and will be of great use for seniors and those who support them.” —Booklist, starred review

Monumental . . . Elderhood, like the life station it studies, is dynamic, multifaceted and full of wonder. Aronson's writing, too, flexes with vibrant energy as she discusses in lucid, candid detail the ways she has seen the healthcare system neglect the overall well-being of her patients, her colleagues and herself . . . Intimidating as it may seem, elderhood becomes welcoming and generous in Aronson's deft care.” —Shelf Awareness, starred review

“An in-depth, unusually frank exploration of biases that distort society's view of old age and that shape dysfunctional health policies and medical practices.” —Kaiser Health News

“Aronson's Elderhood is dazzling, rich with knowledge gleaned from her professional work as a geriatrician, her personal experience as a daughter, her common sense, and her thorough analysis of our social supports and cultural messaging. Her arguments are powerful, and her conclusions are revolutionary. I hope everyone who has a stake in older people, which is ultimately all of us, will read this book.” —Mary Pipher, author of WOMEN ROWING NORTH

“In the latter years there are possibilities for joy, transcendence, and meaning, but also for just the opposite. Aronson writes like a memoirist while giving us scientific insight, philosophical wisdom, and wise counsel for a journey and destination we all share. Elderhood is a lovely and thoughtful exploration of this voyage.” —Abraham Verghese, author of CUTTING FOR STONE

“In Elderhood, the physician-writer Louise Aronson provides an honest and humane analysis of what it means to grow old in America. Her book--part memoir, history, and social critique--is deeply sympathetic to elders and sharply critical of the "anti-aging industry" that has tried to turn being elderly into some sort of disease. I highly recommend this wonderful book to anyone who plans on growing old in this country.” —Sandeep Jauhar, author of HEART: A HISTORY

“As Louise Aronson says, 'Life offers just two possibilities: die young or grow old.' This searing, luminous book is for everyone who hopes to accomplish the latter and remain fully human as they do. It will challenge your assumptions and open your mind--and it just might change your life.” —Lucy Kalanithi, MD, editor of WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

“In Elderhood, Louise Aronson draws on the experiences of her own life and the many lives she has touched as a geriatrician to think about age and aging, combining the insights of science and medicine with the wisdom of literature and human history, all narrated with the practical realism of the caring clinician. It's a wise and beautiful book, to be cherished by anyone who hopes to keep on growing, aging, and learning.” —Perri Klass, MD

“The book that every one of us has been or will be looking for--a passionate, illuminating, brilliant, and beautifully written meditation on aging and caring for elders, Elderhood is a godsend.” —Pauline Chen, MD, author of FINAL EXAM

“A book that needs to be consulted by every care giver and health professional for the wisdom it contains.” —Sun News Tucson

“An intimate look into how the aging process affects real lives and a non-didactic take on the importance of health care.” —San Francisco Chronicle on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“Dr. Aronson writes lovely, nuanced description.” —The New York Times on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“The ethical dilemmas that abound in medicine are prominent but never swamp the stories: these are tales about people, as insightfulas Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro.” —The Independent on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“A fascinating study of our fragile human condition, both physical and emotional. Here is a writer-and a doctor-whose empathy . . . springs forth on every page.” —Peter Orner on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of the sick and the wounded--not on television or in movies but really--then this is the book for you. Compassionate and even anguished . . . It it has the palette and the ring of truth.” —Victoria Sweet, author of GOD'S HOTEL, on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“Invites us to bear witness as people--with very little fanfare, but with a profound sense of truth--to come to terms with what it really means to be a flawed, sick human being in a flawed, sick world.” —Chris Adrian, M.D., author of THE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

A History of the Present Illness is a collection of stories about doctors and their patients, and about the chronic and presenting situations that bring them to crisis. Eudora Welty described the work of another physician/story writer by saying that 'Chekhov's candor was exploratory and painstaking -- he might have used it as the doctor in him would know how, treating the need for truth between human beings as an emergency,' words that seem to me to also apply here. Aronson's quest, too, is for that truth.” —Antonya Nelson, author of BOUND, on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“Aronson's examination of medical culture in stories, of the brutality and tenderness at home and hospital, is a gem. [Her] voice is tender and one from which I hope we'll hear more histories in the future.” —Washington Independent Review of Books on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS

“Aronson effectively illustrates just how jumbled life can be. Hope is limping barely one step ahead of sadness. Human devotion and division, responsibility to self and others are only a smidgen of the subject matter examined by talented and knowledgeable Aronson.” —Booklist on A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS