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  • NYS Writers Institute

Coronavirus and compassion: Dr. Louise Aronson is looking out for older Americans

We spoke with Louise Aronson MD, renowned expert on aging, doctor, writer, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, and author of the 2020 New York Times bestseller, Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. (Earlier today, Elderhood was named a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize General Nonfiction Category.)

Louise was scheduled to visit us on April 29th. We are currently working to reschedule her events for the fall.

She recently received national attention for her widely circulated Op-Ed piece in the New York Times from March 22, 2020, "‘Covid-19 Kills Only Old People.’ Only?: Why are we OK with old people dying?"

Dr. Aronson not only takes issue with a dismissive attitude toward the health and safety of the very old, but suggests that this attitude ultimately endangers us all.

She writes, "Some countries responded slowly to the coronavirus threat because they deemed it a condition primarily lethal to old people 'less worthy of the best efforts to contain it'...."

Her work as a doctor, writer and teacher is dedicated to affirming the value of the oldest old to the society as a whole.

She continues, "When we look at people as nothing more than amalgams of age and diagnosis, we miss their humanity. Last week in my clinic, I met an 87-year-old with heart, kidney, spine, blood and joint disease — the sort of patient some doctors refer to as a 'train wreck.' What is too often missed when such words are used are the other facts of that patient’s life: that she only recently retired from her leadership position at a local service agency, that she had me laughing out loud several times during our visit, that her friends and family describe her as the strongest person they have ever met. We can choose to either diminish our elders or support them. When we care for them, we not only are affecting the lives of people now but also are shaping our own futures."

A fifth generation San Franciscan, Louise Aronson is self-isolating at her home on on one of San Francisco’s fourteen steep hills with her family.

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

A: My life has become all about COVID, or at least that’s the way it feels. I was getting ready to start a new book but now I spend what writing time I have writing about COVID and older people for outlets from the New York Times and Vox and the New England Journal of Medicine.

In my doctor life, most visits are now by telehealth and there has been a learning curve there for all of us. Just as critically, the pandemic is really showing up disparities in care and opportunities in our society and medical system, and I’m working with various groups to see if we can use this unfortunate moment in history to improve and update health care. (I like to make a distinction between medical care, which focuses on diseases, and health care that focuses on people and so includes medical psychological and social approaches to improving lives.)

Q: Is there any action you would like us all to take at the present time?

A: Look out for people in your life and neighborhood who may have a harder time not going out, or getting food, or connecting using technology. I worry that in protecting some people from COVID, we are giving them a slow, lonely life and death instead. We need to physically isolate but socially connect, even across digital and generational and political divides.

Q: Is there anything you'd like us to read?

A: You mean we can actually read something other than the news?? :)

For this moment, I’d recommend books that put the reader into another person’s world while also transporting them with gorgeous, smart language: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, or Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.

Q: Any other words of wisdom for us?

One of my favorite things about being a writer is how revision allows me to be my best, most generous self on the page. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to be angry or sad or frustrated. Put that on the page and then revise until the words don’t so much express those feelings direction as conjure them in the reader.

Dr. Aronson's previously scheduled morning event was cosponsored by The Albany Guardian Society: Service to Seniors in the Capital District. Her afternoon event was cosponsored by UAlbany’s RNA Institute and School of Public Health, UAlbany’s Women in Science and Health network (WISH), and the Hudson Valley RNA Club.

More on Dr. Louise Aronson:

"Author, aging expert on how to care for seniors amid coronavirus" by Jack Rightmyer, Albany Times Union, April 14, 2020

"Ageism is making the pandemic worse" by Louise Aronson in The Atlantic magazine, March 27, 2020

"Coronavirus reveals just how little compassion we have for older people" by Louise Aronson on, March 27, 2020

"Is Aging a Disease?: PW Talks with Louise Aronson and David Sinclair" by Sarah J. Robbins, Publishers Weekly, April 26, 2019


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