The virtues of aging

By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.

I graduated Medical School in 1979, finished my internship and psychiatry residency in 1983 and began my practice in Texas in 1985, after two years in California.

I had just turned 30, and was beginning my career as a psychiatrist. I had the entire future ahead of me and looked forward to a long career. I had chosen a career that wasn’t physically exhausting. I needed to be in reasonably good shape and get a good night’s sleep. Listening to people all day every day requires, among other things, the ability to stay awake while sitting quietly, hours on end.

I remember clearly being invited to join the volunteer teaching faculty at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, and wondering if I was old enough to teach medical students and residents.

After all, I had barely just finished my own training a few years earlier. I did join and have been steadily teaching there since 1989 as a volunteer professor. 

I remember vividly being encouraged and impressed with some of the older faculty who would show up regularly, volunteer their time and teach students and residents. They would share decades of experience, and I would listen with respect at their wisdom.

Last week, as I finished teaching another class, I passed by a large mirror in the hallway, and saw one of those older professors in the mirror… time had passed, and now, much to my astonishment, I’m one of the elders of the faculty, having been there years, if not decades, longer than many faculty.

In a similar vein, I finished my 40th year of practice last summer, and renewed my office lease for another 10 years. The years have passed, and I still have the same sense of purpose in going to the office every day. Working has been part of my life since I started when I was 14 years old. I can’t imagine not doing so.

I have been fortunate to have begun a solo private practice, in which I could spend time with my patients, even those with whom I do not practice psychotherapy. There are many patients I have seen for decades, and we have grown older together. 

I know about their families, friends, religious experiences, divorces, deaths, births, grandchildren, work and hobbies. They occasionally bring me home baked cookies, Christmas popcorn, tea from countries they visit and homemade quilts. 

Those are rare occasions, and cherished.

It’s strange being the same age as old people…

I have read many articles about Medicare, Social Security, retirement, the 4% rule and ailments we tend to encounter as we age. In spite of all of this, I still look forward to tomorrow.

Sharing time with my family, my friends, my patients and my colleagues is an essential part of my life. I know now I will retire someday, but hopefully, not for quite some time. 

In spite of what some may say, age is not simply a number. No one in their 50s is a rookie NBA player. There are no world-class gymnasts in their 40s. We sleep differently, metabolize more slowly, tend to lose muscle mass and see the world differently.

However, as we age, we must learn to play out the hand we were dealt as best we can. We have one life to live, and we can make choices as to what to do every day. 

Be social, exercise, eat well, take care of yourselves and, if possible, help others. Read, learn new skills, music, language, hobbies and talents.

 We grow old, when we stop growing.

Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas. He can be reached at akoenigsberg@mac.com.

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