John Adams on Aging, Illness and Death: A Geriatrician’s Unusual Book Review

“My House is a Region of Sorrow, Inhabited by a sorrowful Widower…The bitterness of death is past. The grim spider so terrible to human nature has no sting left for me.”

–John Adams to his son, John Quincy, upon the death of his beloved wife, Abigail.

A Geriatrician’s Perspective

In First Family, Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis elucidates the character of our least-venerated, least-appreciated Founding Father, John Adams.  He brings Adams to life by presenting his life appropriately intertwined with one of our most-beloved First Ladies in history, Abigail (Smith) Adams.  As with all Ellis’s books, it is written with clarity, verve, and eloquence, mixing the Adams’ remarkable public career with his no-less remarkable marriage and personal life. How many people can claim that they effectively chose a country’s founding document (Jefferson), Military Commander (Washington), and Chief Justice (Marshall) and to have fathered a future President (John Quincy)?  And these are merely sidelights to a remarkable life of achievement. Rather than discuss the usual political topics, I focus here on a favorite topic of mine: aging.  Among the gems of insight scattered throughout this book are Adams’ (and Jefferson’s) thoughts on getting older, failing health, and death.  For a man who lived past the age of 90, at a time when life expectancy was closer to 40, his thoughts sound remarkably modern, hinting at the universality of these issues.

Adams and Jefferson on Aging

In the twilight of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously corresponded, reflecting on their lives and debating their political differences.  The correspondence had ended when Jefferson and Abigail Adams — John’s lifelong partner in all things domestic and political – exchanged letters, unbeknownst to John.  Jefferson denied paying a known “journalist” scoundrel, James Callendar, to libel John – which was a lie.  Abigail directly called Jefferson out on this lie, writing that, after their many years of friendship, “the Heart is long, very long in receiving the conviction that is forced upon it by Reason.”  After noting that Jefferson’s critics had accused him of being a disingenuous and dishonorable, steely-eyed Abigail says, “Pardon me, Sir…I fear you are.” Nobody he admired had ever been so direct with Jefferson on this point.  The result was that no further correspondence between households occurred for nearly a decade. Wouldn’t we all love to have such eloquent, steadfast support from our partner! After many years of bitter silence over such issues, Adams reignited a conversation, writing to Jefferson that, “You and I ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other.”  The resulting correspondence between the two, 158 letters worth in total, memorably did just this, as each posed for posterity, knowing their letters would be read by History.  While most discussions of this correspondence focus on the political ideas between the two, such abstract thoughts were interwoven with other topics.  This included sublime thoughts on aging, health, and death. In one exchange, Jefferson offers (p. 238): “But our machines have now been running for 70 or 80 years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way. And however we may tinker them up for a while, all will at last surcease motion.”  In my clinic, helping my older patients navigate through issues of their “machines” running down, dealing with multimorbidity, frailty and polypharmacy, I often feel just like some mechanic, “tinkering” with their delicate “parts”, hoping to keep them moving as long as possible.  Many patients of mine, especially the men and the engineers, complain about their declining abilities like cars springing leaks, rusting through, and falling apart. In response, Adams worries about something slightly different: “I am sometimes afraid that my ‘Machine’ will not ’surcease motion’ soon enough; for I dread nothing so much as ‘dying at the top,’ and thereby becoming a weeping helpless object of compassion for years.”  Adams’ had an ongoing fear of losing his mental faculties. As Ellis notes, Adams had seen the mental deterioration of his cousin, Sam Adams, and John “feared dementia more than death.”  This is the sentiment I so often hear from my patients, that their greatest fear is getting Alzheimer’s disease. My own experience with patients confirms this as one of their greatest fears as they grow old.

Literary Illness

Among the literary gems unearthed by Ellis are Adams’ colorful descriptions of his various ailments.  He creates a lovely neologism to explain one particular problem:  the “quiverations” in his hands.  These tremors prevented this inveterate, lifelong writer from doing so effectively.  He had to resort to dictating his ideas to whatever grandchild he could convince to listen.  I love this term, which captures the spirit of how tremulousness must feel from within. I’ve had patients say how they simultaneously don’t notice their tremors, but how annoying it is when they have to deal with it.  I’m likely to adopt this term for my patients, as I love the verve it imparts to the condition. In another case, he complains that his “constitution is a glass bubble or a hollow icicle”.  He worries that, “A slight irregularity or one intemperate dinner might finish the catastrophe of the play.”  He was on the brink, in which a new stressor might push him over the top.  I can think of no more poetic expression of Fried’s Frailty, which is a physiological vulnerability to stressors which predisposes older adults to morbidity and mortality.  Thinking of my frail patients as “glass bubbles” is a perfect metaphor for those struggling through another Polar Vortex in Chicago.

Death, Dying, and the Spirituality

When Abigail died, as the quote above indicated, Adams was grief-stricken for nearly a year.  After 54 years of marriage, he was lost without his lifelong confidant.  Grief at the death of a spouse or other loved one is a constant risk for older adults, especially if it leads to on-going depression.  It is a wonderful reminder of the blow such events can deal to our older patients. Adams despite a having a Deacon for a father (whom he deeply admired), had skeptical views of religion and the afterlife. In his later years, when asked about the Christian view on life after death, he jokingly responded that he assumed God would allow him to further debate Benjamin Franklin as part of the experience. Nevertheless, he did assume there was some sort of afterlife: “If it should be revealed…that there is no future state, my advice to every man, woman, and child would be…to take opium.” On the day of the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson was chosen to author by Adams, the two Founders died within hours or each other, on July 4th, 1826.  Adams famous last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” were incorrect; Jefferson had passed shortly before his colleague.  Like two intertwined spouses, the two friends left their earthly lives together.

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Filed under End of Life Care, Geriatrics, History, Palliative Care, Uncategorized

One response to “John Adams on Aging, Illness and Death: A Geriatrician’s Unusual Book Review

  1. Pingback: Existential Pain and History | Doctor Squared - WilliamDale MD,PhD

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