There were big-time laughs, and the expected misty eye or two, at today’s Medicine X session on aging and longevity. Natrice Rese, a retired personal support worker, began the conversation with a moving ePatient Ignite! talk about how life for many older adults is less than “golden.” She told the audience how difficult time spent in a nursing home or care facility can be: “So many people wait to be fed, wait to be dressed, wait to be undressed, wait to be taken outside… When you’re dependent on care from others, your life is reduced to a waiting game.”
Her mother found herself in one such place at the age of 85, and Rese recalled how her mom pulled her aside one day and said, “Don’t come near these places – it’s not good here.” Her mother was in the throes of Alzheimer’s and unable to offer further details, but “her words stay with me today,” Rese somberly told the audience.
Rese said her mom’s comments ultimately reinforced her desire to work to make sure older adults feel appreciated and are able to “create memories that matter.”
Fellow panelist Barbara Beskind is certainly doing that – and more. The 91-year-old former occupational therapist made headlines when she landed a job at Silicon Valley design firm IDEO. Appearing at the conference alongside Dennis Boyle, a partner and founding member of the firm, she goes to the office every Thursday and is now working on a variety of projects related to aging – including a redesigned walker.
Younger designers “can’t put themselves in the shoes of the elderly,” Beskind told USA Today earlier this year. “People who design for the elderly think they need jeweled pill boxes or pink canes. We need functional equipment.”
“I admire you,” Rese told Beskind during a panel discussion, after hearing about Beskind’s contributions. “You shouldn’t be one of a few – you should be one of many.”
Beskind’s talk was preceded by a presentation from Christopher Scott, PhD, senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, who offered details on longevity research. Earlier this year, he described the central features of work in this area as including “an embrace of big data, a pivot away from studies hoping to find aging genes, a recognition that aging is best thought of a collection of diseases, not just one disease;” he said today that the theme of the research is how to “live long and live well.”
Suggesting that people read Ezekiel Emanuel’s recent provocative essay called “Why I hope to die at age 75″ (“He’s very skeptical that new technologies will give us the future that we deserve and are aiming for,” said Scott), as well as an “absolutely stunning” series of New York Times pieces written about the end of life by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD, Scott encouraged the audience to ask themselves several important questions. How would you imagine old age to be 50 years from now? Should there be limits on technology that could enable people to live much longer than they do today? And, how do we want to live our lives between now and our individual endpoints?
Other questions were later posed to the panelists by moderator Paul Costello and Twitter users. When asked how we, as a society, can shift our focus from disease care to quality of life, Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, senior instructor-research of health engagement in Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab, noted that patients’ voices need to be turned up in volume: “It’s a breakdown in democracy that this isn’t happening.” Earlier she referenced the disparity between what people say they want as they get older (in crude terms: that they don’t want to rot away) and what actually happens in many cases. “We need to design a way to close the gap,” she said.
The session ended on a lighter note, with the panelists taking a crack at giving advice to their 25-year-old selves. “Slow down” and know that relationships are all that matter, said Bobinet. “Try to live without fear,” suggested Costello. Have better posture, and know that taking a brisk walk for 30 minutes each day will keep you young, commented Beskind. But big laughs were reserved for Scott’s answer: “Stay away from Bombay Sapphire gin.”
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