A Doctor's Memories
Victor C. Vaughan, M.D.

Table of Contents

Chapter 15

Old Age

Old age! The greatest paradox in the life of man! All wish to reach it; every one dreads it; few acknowledge it when it comes; it is always a liability, never an asset; some may respect it, none love it; many would give all they possess to acquire or retain it; many who possess it die in poverty; as it hangs on the tree it is an alluring fruit; many of those who pluck it find it filled with gall and bitterness. Philosophers, pagan and Christian, have discussed it, some with wisdom and sympathy; others in contempt and bitterness; painters have portrayed it: some in truthful fidelity; others in idealistic colors; artists have chiseled it in marble and cast it in bronze, some showing it in strength, others in weakness; men in every calling of life have honored it by worthy achievement; others have disgraced it. It has been held out as a reward for virtue; to many virtuous men who have acquired it, it has proven to be an apple of Sodom; it is not wholly withheld from the vicious.

Mrs. Vaughan

Old age is frequently denominated “second childhood.” In one particular-that of dependence and guidance by others-there is reason in this comparison, but fundamentally there are great differences. The normal child is growing in strength; the old man is losing. In the child constructive biological processes are dominant; in the aged destructive processes prevail. Childhood is arrival; age is departure. On the threshold of the House of Life those who have preceded welcome and guide us; on leaving, each goes out into the unknown with no word of cheer or guidance from those who have gone before. Curiosity, and adventure are the dominant motives in childhood; in the aged these are waning. Investigation and the acquisition of knowledge are basic in the mentality of the child; indifference and forgetfulness mark the declining years of life. Great expectations stimulate the child; frequent disappointments have made the old man wary of promises. To the child the future beckons; to the old man the past calls. All the cells in the body of the normal child are gaining in momentum, in multiplication and in function; in the old they are losing in all these activities. Youth moves lightly, free from care; multiplying burdens bend the shoulders and retard the steps of age. The child is a top, just released from the string, abounding in energy, moving with speed and grace; the old man is the same toy, with energy spent, beginning to totter and soon to fall.

Individual characteristics inherited or acquired in early life are likely to become intensified with age. The egotist is prone to boast more loudly of his achievements while the modest man becomes more retiring and reticent. The former embarrasses his family and friends while the latter becomes less social. To some, old age, or the consciousness of it, comes suddenly. Such a one realizes that his strength, either physical or mental, is seriously impaired. The recognition of this is a crisis in life and may terminate in serious tragedy. It is a severe blow to a strong man to realize abruptly that he must fall out of the race, that his work is done, that his ambitions are never to be realized. Fortunately, to most this realization comes slowly, and fortunate is he who is the first to recognize his own weakness and doubly fortunate is he who still has a strong enough grip upon himself calmly and wisely to set his house in order and yield gracefully to the inevitable. This is a crucial test of a man’s sanity and too often it breaks his reason. In the face of such disaster some find consolation in religion, which offers them hope in a future and unending life, with freedom from the cruel limitations placed on man here below. Man’s mind has been fertile in the invention of schemes of personal immortality and these have done much to smooth the pathway of advancing years. Pagan Seneca declares: “Old age is the fruit of sobriety and supplies opportunity to go on to happiness unhindered by passion. Life’s duration should be measured by deeds done and not by years lived. He who has lived without good deeds has been long dead. Man does not come upon death abruptly; he approaches it day by day; we reach the end, but we have been long on the way; everything comes to an end; nothing perishes; this death, which we regard with terror, does not take away life; it only suspends it; seeming destruction is only change in form.

Every one who has reached seventy should read and reread that unsurpassed essay on old age written by Cicero. For wise counsel it has no equal within the whole range of literature. Age curtails one’s participation in current events. The old man must lay aside many duties, and sadder still, must forego honors to which he has been accustomed. As a leader he is supplanted by a younger man.

For a while he may struggle along in the front rank, but soon he finds that his own progressive enfeeblement and the more insistent strength of the new generation force him to retire to the rear, and if he is wise he finally realizes that his proper place is that of a spectator, and not of a participant in the combat. Under these circumstances he must choose between becoming a fool or a philosopher. In the role of the former he shows himself as a harping critic, embitters his own life, makes himself obnoxious to his friends and the quicker he goes to his grave the better for all. If he chooses to become a philosopher he may enter upon enjoyments unknown at any earlier period of his life. As a spectator he may find amusement and even bits of instruction in the passing show with the full recognition of the fact that he is no longer responsible for results. It has been said, quite truthfully, that the old man is denied the sensual pleasures of youth and early manhood. Fortunately desire grows feeble with advancing years and when it is no longer felt the sense of deprivation ceases. Doubly cursed is he in whom desire outlives capability of enjoyment. There is nothing in human form more disgusting or more pitiable than the aged roué who seeks rejuvenescence in the filthy pools of sensuality.

While old age unfits man for certain activities, it does not necessarily assign him to a life of idleness. There are still light physical exercises in which he can employ his days with profit and pleasure. Agriculture, in its multitudinous phases, holds out alluring charms for the aged. No branch of science has been exhausted. No species of animal or plant has revealed all its life secrets to man. Neither the flora nor the fauna of any locality, however limited, has been completely catalogued, Fort Hate is the old man who has a scientific hobby which he may ride, with joy to himself and without disturbance to his neighbor. Greatly blessed is the old man who has learned to commune with the dead through their writings. The richest treasures of earth are his to enjoy. Gorgias, the tutor of Isocrates, lived one hundred and seven years and continued to devote himself to study. When asked about his comfort, he replied: “I have no reason to complain of old age.” Fontenelle (1657-1757) said that the happiest part of his life was between sixty and eighty. Chevrenl (1786-1889) is reported to have said as he was dying: “I only find a little difficulty in living.

Moderation in eating and drinking should grow more strict with advancing years in recognition of the fact that the processes of digestion, absorption, assimilation and elimination decline. Between the sexes the serene love of Philemon and Baucis is more suitable to old age than the stormy passions of Romeo and Juliet. An Arab proverb says the two worst things for an old man are a good cook and a young wife.

In normal senescence every organ and every function is involved and harmony is maintained as the machine slows down and finally comes to rest. However, in many instances decline in function is more marked in one organ than in others. Montaigne observed: “It is the body which sometimes yieldeth first to age; and other times the mind; and I have seen many that have had their brains weakened before their stomachs and legs.

Not infrequently disease precedes or accompanies senescence and has an intensifying effect. Among those who consume carbohydrates in excess, diabetes, either mild or grave, is a frequent precursor to senescence. In other instances disease of the circulatory system involving the coats of the arteries or the valves of the heart may supervene. Indeed, there has been a tendency to measure the progress of senescence by the state of the arteries as ascertained by the blood pressure. “A man is as old as his arteries” has become an aphorism first employed by physicians and now repeated by the laity. Like other proverbs it contains both truth and error. The walls of the arteries do tend to harden with advancing years, but normal blood pressure does not insure great longevity nor does it license its possessor to continue the heavier tasks of his earlier manhood. Paton says: “The somatic changes beginning after the prime of life has been reached are demonstrable in practically all the organs of the body and include a variety of different forms depending upon the character of the tissues in which they occur. No categorical definition of these alterations is possible, since it is necessary to distinguish carefully between the signs of normal aging and the changes precipitated by the action of disease. Besides these two distinct sets of conditions, definite pathologic processes may arise as secondary complications of physiologic old age. Moreover, it is sometimes not possible to state when the normal or average physiologic rate of progressive changes going on in the body has been accentuated by disease; nor can we, as a matter of fact, say why it is that we grow old”

Goethe, both scientist and poet, puts it as follows: “By appointed hours we enter into life; the days are numbered which make us ripe to see the light; but for the duration of our life there is no law. The weakest thread will spin itself to unexpected length; and the strongest is cut suddenly asunder by the scissors of the fates.

In my work on epidemiology I have written: “Among the aged and those suffering from chronic diseases, pneumonia is the kindly friend who, having prepared the bed for the body worn out with the work and worry of life’s short day, administers the soporific which induces the sleep of the eternal night. On the whole, the old man who is rowed across the Styx by pneumonia is not compelled to pay a heavy toll in pain.

Thoughtless youth, unmindful of the fact that it hopes to reach his status, is prone to throw jibes at the old man. When he enters into the conversation with enthusiasm he is said to be garrulous. When he is silent, he is said to be morose. When he dresses neatly he is denominated a Beau Brummel. When his coat is of last year’s variety he is a slouch. When he entertains liberally he is called an old spendthrift. In his thrift he is a miser. When the wise old man finds himself in such company he turns to his books.

I suppose that when one has passed his seventieth birthday he may justly claim to be old. During my younger days, while I was professor of hygiene, I thought that it would be a reflection on my teaching to die young. Having escaped that disgrace I find myself quite as willing as ever to postpone my departure from earth.

Unmeaning is the old man’s wish to die,
Or age complaining of life’s lengthened course.
For at th’ advance of death, none has the will
To die; old age is no more grievous to them.

In my seventieth year (1921) I resigned from all duties and functions at the University of Michigan. In September we rented a pleasant home in Chevy Chase and I took up the duties of the chairmanship of the Medical Division of the National Research Council, then housed in the old Charles Francis Adams home, 1701 Massachusetts Avenue. We are not strangers in Washington, having resided here in 1898-99 following the Spanish-American War and in 1917-19 during the World War, besides making frequent visits to the capital in intervening years. We have always enjoyed Washington; here we have many of our most highly prized friends. My wife, in the Washington Club, and I, in the Cosmos and Army and Navy, find those, association with whom satisfies our highest ideals of social and intellectual companionship. When I wish authoritative information I have only to engage one of my acquaintances in conversation. The libraries are unsurpassed and no one needs to suffer from intellectual hunger in Washington.

The position of the chairmanship of the Medical Division of the National Research Council being for only one year, in October, 1922, we took temporary residence in Chicago where I assisted in launching Hygeia, a journal devoted to individual and community health, and published by the American Medical Association. Both at work and at play in Chicago we passed the time most pleasantly. My associations in the office were ideal in every respect and we did enjoy the opera which, in our limited experience, we believed to be unsurpassed anywhere in the world. We spent the winter of 1923-24 in Washington giving our time to reading and writing.

In October, 1924, with a skilful and trustworthy chauffeur, we journeyed to Florida, went by boat from Tampa to New Orleans, and from thence to California, passing up the Pacific Coast to Portland and back to “the cottage in the woods” which we reached the last of May, 1925. This trip, the most delightful we have ever taken, was marked by no unpleasant incident. We found friends and made pleasant acquaintances at every stop. We left no place without regret or without the desire to return. In September, 1925, I again assumed the duties of the chairmanship of the Medical Division of the National Research Council, now located in the splendid building near the Lincoln Memorial, and am engaged in this most pleasant occupation as I write these lines.

In the eighties we became aware of the fact that we should seek summer pasturage for our rapidly growing and multiplying boys. We gave a few weeks of two vacations to the search. At first we secured a location at the “Snows” (les Cheneaux), but later, straying into the Grand Traverse Region, we changed our plan. Some twenty congenial families combined, bought a woodland tract on Old Mission Bay, divided the shore line into locations and drew lots for choice. In 1890 we built a modest cottage in “the woods beyond the world.” The lover of William Morris will know from this quotation what books we were reading at the time. Here our five boys grew up, reading Fenimore Cooper and playing at Indians in the woods, swimming in the bay and sailing both near and afar. Here each of the four married ones brought his bride, and here they assemble each summer with their wives and children, not neglectful of the widowed wife of their eldest brother. To the stranger Old Mission has but little attraction; to us it is hallowed ground. Grandmother and grandfather, surrounded by happy, romping, laughing children, often see in their features and hear in their voices reminiscences of their lost son. Then the old pair grow sad, but tears must be brushed away and sad memories hushed, for we live for the living and can only mourn in silence for the dead.

A condition made by my wife on going to Old Mission was that the boys should not sail. I kept mute, and she, interpreting silence as consent, seemed satisfied. The first summer the older boys with their fellows were crossing the bay with their canoes moved by sails improvised out of torn pillow cases and bed sheets. Then wise woman as she is, she said that if sail they would, they must have instruction in the art; under the skilful direction of Mr. Aiken Montague and in the company of his sons, our boys were soon sailing in the Onawa to Mackinaw, Detour, up the Saint Mary’s River, through the locks, and along the Canadian shores of Lake Superior. On many of these trips I was the only passenger, my function being that of a self-adjusting ballast, while the others constituted the officers and crew, taking turns as cook and dish washer.

The Onawa was a sloop, about forty feet over all, drawing less than two feet, but supplied with a heavy iron center board. As a harbor and picnic boat she was ideal, providing for as many as twenty or twenty-five in the cockpit. In heavy seas in the open waters of the Great lakes she was trustworthy in skilful hands as was demonstrated in more than one gale. My wife became an ardent sailor and frequently the whole family, including the babies, went for a sail of from forty to sixty miles, to Charlevoix and Petoskey. On one of these trips we were caught in a heavy gale which wrecked at least one steamer. Our dingey filled with water and had to be cut loose. The main sail was torn into shreds but enough of the jib was left to keep her head on. We managed to creep into Charlevoix some time in the night. In the storm no one lost his head, bells announced the hours at proper intervals and no one told the captain what he should do. In the storm a large watermelon rolled from one side of the cockpit to the other. When opened on our return voyage under restricted sails and with fair winds the boys asserted the gale had blown the seeds out of the melon. The log of the Onawa was recorded in doggerel lines without meter and with many questionable rhymes, the main thing being an attempt at humor. She was a gallant little craft and sailed the lakes before auxiliary motors were known.

The Cottage in the Woods

The Red Arrow on the shore of Lake Superior

In larger boats, the Kayoshk and the Gem, built and owned by Mr. Montague, we have had many delightful cruises. Our son Walter’s more pretentious Red Arrow now serves all of us.

Our time at Old Mission is not given wholly to the water. I step from the back door of the cottage into a bit of the primeval forest of Michigan, the Leffingwell Forest Reserve, donated to the people by the Reverend Charles W. Leffingwell, now of Pasadena, and a true lover of nature. In this forest one walks beneath towering pines, white and Norway, giant hemlocks and spreading beeches, interspersed with clumps of birch bark, and may look out into the open expanse of Grand Traverse Bay and beyond into Lake Michigan. The dear old doctor left evidences of his love of the beautiful in the names he gave to points of interest. Now we are climbing “Prospects Heights”; now standing on “Inspiration Point”; now walking through “Wintergreen Hollow.

His markers are growing illegible and soon will be blotted out. His children and mine in loving fun added such appellations as “The Milky Way” to designate the path they took to bring the daily supply of lacteal fluid to our homes. Our table never groans from the weight of imported viands, but carries a sufficiency of native food, prepared by Mary Gruner who has been in charge of our culinary department for thirty-five years.

The Peninsula is devoted to fruit growing, especially cherries and apples with an abundance of berries in season. As one drives along the Ridge Road in late May or early June the blossom display, while not so extensive as that seen on descending from the mountains into the Santa Clara Valley, is pleasing, and when one eats the fruit there is no comparison between the California and the Michigan products, the preference being universally conceded to the latter. The thick, yellow cream which we have from well-fed Guernseys is unknown on even the most expensive hotel tables. Of other food products of both the vegetable and animal kingdom there is no dearth. Of cold storage eggs there is not one, and when Joe Mulujek lifts his nets filled with white fish we have the most delicious food produced in the waters of the earth, fresh from its native element.

Nor are we in danger of social and intellectual starvation here in “the woods beyond the world,” for Mr. Bishop, the kindly University librarian, keeps us supplied with the best literature, both old and recent. Many others, with inclinations like our own, find pleasant places in the Grand Traverse Region and every cottage door is open to all visitors.

To my elderly brothers I would say: When your friends will not listen to your oft told tales; when you tire of standing on the side lines and seeing the procession go by; when the young turn to you a cold shoulder and a deaf ear; don’t worry, but thank God and take to the woods. When you think that the new generation is going to the devil, do not preach to it, do not trouble about it; let it go, and come to the woods. Come and saunter in the forest by day and learn contentment from Mother Earth; sit on the shore or lie for an hour at night in your boat; look into the starry heavens and realize how small and insignificant is man and how glorious are the works of God.

I can truly say that with old age, so far as I have experienced it, I am content. The pleasure in living has grown, and indeed the fast revolving years have only increased my interest in my environment. It is true that I am apprehensive-not of what may happen to me after death, but of what may happen before that event or may happen to my loved ones before or after my departure. In other words, only the things of this life concern me greatly. To paraphrase a saying of George Sand, I may say that my anxiety is not with death but with life. No one grows so old that he fails to realize that some misfortune may come upon him before he dies; therefore Sophocles, twenty-three centuries ago, wrote: “O citizen of Thebes, my country, behold this (Oedipus, who solved the famous enigma and was the most exalted of mankind, who, looking with no envious eyes upon the fortunes of others, into how vast and stormy a sea of tremendous misery he hath come! Then, mortal as thou art, looking out for a sight of that day, thy last, call no man happy ere he shall have crossed the boundary of life, the sufferer of naught painful.

I have had the pleasure and the honor of traveling with many of the best men and women of my generation and have profited by their advice and example. My ancestors did not transmit to me any gross defect. My parents nurtured me in wisdom and love. I have not been pinched by poverty, nor exalted by riches. Above all I have been blessed in my wife whose unfailing love has cheered me in both fair and foul weather and whose wise counsel has been my staff and support along the way. She has borne to me and reared to maturity five sons no one of whom has ever caused our cheeks to blush with shame. In the death of our eldest the heaviest sorrow known to parents has been imposed upon us, one which time can not relieve, but we know that his fate awaits all and that ultimately we shall join him either in the eternal sleep or in whatever form of conscious existence the wise creator of the universe has provided for mortals when their earthly duties are ended.


A Doctor's Memories
Victor C. Vaughan, M.D.

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