The good doctor has a prescription for ‘The Art of Aging’

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Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff

If you’re in the market for a motto these days (and who doesn’t need a good motto to live by?) you probably can’t do better than adopt the one that guides Dr. Sherwin Nuland, of Hamden, author of the book, “The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being,” Random House, $24.95.
His motto is: “Life can be beautiful.”
That was the name of a soap opera that Nuland’s grandmother used to watch when he was a boy, and now, at the age of 76, Nuland says it’s become one of the guiding principles of his life, words that repeat themselves in the back of his mind.

“Notice,” he points out, “that it doesn’t say, ‘Life is beautiful.’ It says it can be.”

This is an important distinction for Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, whose new book takes an unflinching look at how we age, and then goes on to discuss what treasures and rewards we may find as we grow old, rewards that go beyond what we might have imagined for ourselves.

Indeed, Nuland doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the last decades of life may contain disease and unexpected declines. He doesn’t take a Pollyanna approach to the very real problems that our bodies may experience. But he doesn’t think the view from old age is all bad, by any means.

“People get so pessimistic about aging,” he says. “Yet I’m having a wonderful time, and many of the people I spoke to and interviewed for the book are having a wonderful time. Even though some of them have some very serious health issues, they have found how to live with their limitations and have rewarding lives.”

Nuland is the author of “How We Die,” the nonfiction winner of the 1994 National Book Award, a book that gave an unflinching look at how the human body comes to its end, physiologically and emotionally. Since then, he’s written several other books, including a memoir about the difficult life of his Jewish immigrant family, called “Lost in America: A Journey with My Father,” Random House, 2003, but he says that “The Art of Aging” came about because he wanted to step back and explore the end years of our life’s journey “” both from a scientific perspective but also in a reflective, humanist way.

What he found from his studies and his interviews and case histories was that people could stay happy and engaged with life much beyond what our youth culture might lead us to believe.

“Life can be rewarding at any age,” he says, “and we have far more control over those rewards than we think we do. If you see yourself as tired, sedentary and sickly, you will be. If you see yourself as having the ability to be vibrant and alive and living your life with new rewards, you will find those things.”

There is, he says, an art to living to the fullest “” and he believes that we have the power to make choices about the way we live at any age.

“I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen to our bodies,” he says. “I know that reviews are going to come out that say I’m being ‘hopelessly optimistic,’ but I’m really not. The body ages, and I have a chapter in the book telling exactly what is going on and what is breaking down. All these things are happening, and you can’t control them. But what you can control are your responses to these things. It’s a decision you make.”

Nuland’s recommendations for living life to the fullest aren’t big news, nor were they meant to be. Just in living his own life, he says he’s discovered what keeps life joyful and moving along “” and he says he’s come to see these things as “necessities of life” instead of ordinary byproducts.

There are three main necessities, as he sees it:

“We need relationships, caring and love of other people. We need a means of creativity, and we need a structure for keeping up our musculoskeletal strength. All of these things help us to make us feel a little bit better about ourselves each day,” he says. “These give you the sense that you’re still improving.”

Nuland himself began going to the gym eight years ago, and he admits with a sly grin that not a day goes by that he doesn’t hate it just as much as he did at the beginning.

“I went at first to trim my waistline. Now I go to stay alive,” he says. “I work out three times a week, and I have fewer aches and pains than I did before I started. It’s improved my tennis game immeasurably. And after the tsunami, I went on a trip to Sri Lanka and was able to keep up with others who were 35 years younger than I am. But that doesn’t mean that that nine-minute car ride to the gym isn’t the worst nine minutes of my day. But every time I do it, I feel great about myself. I see myself now as a person who does this and stays strong. It’s an accomplishment.”

Aging, he says, is a series of losses, but there are gains to be had, as well.

“The gains have to do with the control you have, the focus on relationships and creativity. I just have always assumed that we get better as we get older, despite the forgetting, the cataracts, the loss of certain physical functions,” he says. “Aging is a developmental phase of life, and every developmental phase has certain tyrannies that overwhelm it. They all have their rewards and their problems.”

People, he feels, idealize previous stages of life “” adolescence and young adulthood, for instance “” without remembering the confusion, the difficulties, the uncertainty of finding one’s place. “Old age, though, is frightening because of the elephant in the room: death,” he says. “We have a fear and anxiety about death. I say to my wife that I wish I had 20 more years, just because there are so many more things I want to get done.”

Wanting more time, though, is a good thing, he says. “The purpose of this book has been to show people that they don’t have to accept a preconceived concept of what getting old means, and let themselves become the mental equivalent of couch potatoes. At any age, you can seek out new interests, form new relationships, experience your creativity. All those things are available to you, if you want them.”

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