Revealing Men
Revealing Men
How Men Can Face the Challenges of Aging and Cognitive Decline

If we live long enough, we will age. Despite our protestations to the contrary, there will be things we can no longer do in the ways in which we’ve become accustomed. For many of us, that is inconceivable. Psychotherapist, Randy Flood, and clinical psychologist, Mark DeVries, Ph.D. are friends and biking enthusiasts. Flood hosts the Revealing Men podcast and is the Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. He works with men and boys to address the issues they face in today’s world. DeVries provides psychological and neuropsychological assessment services to adults in their 60s and older. Some of the men he sees have concerns about cognitive decline due to aging.

(This is DeVries’ second podcast for Revealing Men. His first focused on his studies of the emotional bond between humans and the Earth and, specifically, how men’s sense of masculine identity can have an impact on their relationship to the natural environment.)

In this sometimes intimate, sometimes humorous conversation, Flood and DeVries talk about aging in general and, specifically, how men wrestle with a diagnosis of cognitive decline due to aging. And they ask how society might help make the aging process less difficult. DeVries shares his father’s experience with cognitive decline. And both men laugh as they discuss what their transition into old age might look like. Together, they provide insight and useful information as to how men (and the people who care for them) can more easily transition into their place as elders in community. You can listen to this conversation in its entirety on the Revealing Men podcast on Google Podcast, Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Stitcher).

When It’s More Than Forgetfulness

DeVries conducts neuropsychological evaluations on men and women who are referred to him due to cognitive decline. He says that often, the men he sees “are beginning to lose the very things that have defined them. Such as control, productivity, dominance, that kind of thing. And that can be an existential challenge. Not only for the individual but for the family.” Not surprisingly, the onset of cognitive decline can be met with denial.  Flood suggests, the challenge is made more difficult for men who are tied to a traditional, rigid view of masculinity: “I’m going to control, dominate, possess, be in charge, be independent, not need help, be able to drive, be able to do all these things.”

According to DeVries, denial is the main response he sees. But that’s not unexpected. “I want to recognize that denial is a protective mechanism,” DeVries says. “It’s kind of a normal response to say ‘this isn’t really happening.’” Along with the denial that things are changing, DeVries has also seen the projection of blame: “This isn’t something that’s happening to me. This is something that my family is doing to me.” That kind of thinking can cause men to experience their family, friends, and loved ones as more controlling and more critical.

Reacting to a Sense of Loss

Each man DeVries sees responds to the idea of cognitive decline differently. “You see some men who handle it with an incredible graciousness; an incredible grace. And you also see men who resist it kicking and screaming,” he says. With some, there is an increase in irritability which DeVries says is often interpreted as depression. He views it more as a “manifestation of grief.” Along with apprehension and fear for what the future may hold, his clients are facing a loss of self-identity.

Flood notes that the men he works with who act out with irritability and anger are often experiencing something they’re not able to talk about or acknowledge because it’s too foreign or scary. He asks whether the men DeVries sees are able to articulate this: “Doctor DeVries, what’s going on with me right now scares the hell out of me. And I’m not used to needing help or depending on others…this journey scares me. Can you help me? What can I do to help myself?” DeVries responds that although he hasn’t heard it “as eloquently as you put it in your imagination,” he’s heard variations of those thoughts.

“What I’m called upon to do,” he says, “is to be present for [the individual] in the presence of his wife or family and say ‘you are used to being in charge’ or ‘you are a leader, you’ve been a leader your whole life. And now you’re finding some cracks in your ability to be a leader and that is difficult and painful.’ And men who are more in touch with that will begin to acknowledge that and be more able to go into the grief. Others will push back against it.

Living With Cognitive Decline

 The rapport between DeVries and Flood is evident when they discuss their own aging. Case in point, while reflecting on his earlier comment about expressing fear, Flood says, “Hopefully, I can articulate that when I get there. My family’s going to do an intervention and bring up this podcast and say, ‘you said it! Why can’t you say it now?!’” DeVries responds, “I’m telling you, you’re in trouble because I know your family and they won’t take any shit from you!” The conversation about family moves into an intimate story about DeVries’ father, John.

“Do you want to talk about this guy?” asks Flood. DeVries’ father, Second Lieutenant John DeVries was a navigator on a B-17 during WWII where he flew 30 missions. A centenarian, he is facing the challenges of aging, including cognitive decline, with grace.

DeVries says that his father is still present in many ways. He’s a voracious reader of history and philosophy (what Flood refers to as “more traditional, more masculine literature”), who now reads romance novels as well. According to his son, the elder DeVries is obsessed with them. “He will read those books and cry,” DeVries says.  “And I think it’s just the romance of it. It’s the love. What did Freud say? He said the task of life is to work and to love.”

When it became time to move into a memory care unit, DeVries’ father “went into [the] move with a tremendous amount of grace. He accepted it and is kind of living a mystic existence. …He grew up in a pretty traditional Dutch-Calvinist home and over the years has become more of a Christian mystic. Which is a beautiful thing to see.”

DeVries then shares how his father responded when told that he could no longer drive. “We were talking about driving,” DeVries recalls, “and he was proclaiming that he was still able to drive. … And so, I confronted him on that issue, maybe a bit harshly, and he looks me in the eye and says “I said I still CAN drive, I didn’t say I would.” So, he was able to save face with that statement and, at the same time, accept the verdict.” The men laugh and move on to discuss ways in which the process of aging, in general, and the challenge of cognitive decline, specifically, could be made easier for men.

Changing What We Value in Life

“When men have been identified with their productivity, their contribution to our economic system for so long and then lose their ability to be productive,” notes DeVries, “there’s a tremendous amount of grief that goes with that. Because we define being human, particularly being male, being masculine, with that ability to be productive.” But, he asks, “what if we did not define ourselves by that?” “What if men’s identity was broadened, more versatile,” suggests Flood. Would men be better prepared to face the challenges of loss of cognitive functioning more gracefully? Flood proposes that if men can become connected to their inner life and have a broader vision of what it means to be a man from early on, “might neuropsychologists like you be able to see men grappling with this differently?”

This prompts DeVries to share a passage from On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What it Means to Disappear, by author Lynne Castille Harper. DeVries calls the essay one of the most beautiful he’s ever read. It’s entitled “A Great Many Seemings Here.”

“With the rapid industrialization of late 19th-century America, what were once considered natural aspects of advanced age came to have pejorative meanings. The demands of the new marketplace stigmatized those who were not physically and mentally able to adequately participate in an increasingly complex and bureaucratized system…Since respectability was defined by the norms of white society and the assumption that rationality was the domain of white men, one’s inability to carry off a middle-class role bore anxieties related to gender and race, too.”

Flood asks DeVries to share his takeaway from Castille Harper’s writing. “My takeaway … is what if we, from the beginning, socialized men to be more well-rounded? Not just producers but caretakers, caregivers, people who were in touch with feelings and relationship and empathy. What if we did not identify ourselves with production and productivity? Then might not the changes that come with aging be a bit easier to manage and to accept?”

Lessons From Ralph Waldo Emerson

Flood imagines what just being – not doing – might be like. “It’s like, I can’t remember much and my speech isn’t that great anymore. But what gives me value with my grandkids, or great-grandkids, or my adult children, is just to show up and be in the room. And I’m lovable because of that. I don’t have to say or do anything.” This acceptance removes a burden from loved ones as well: “to have the people in that room also have a different view of masculinity and to be able to say ‘he doesn’t have to do anything. He doesn’t have to take care of us. … He can just be here and we can love him.’”

Flood’s comment takes DeVries by surprise because it is similar to Castille Harper’s description in her book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cognitive decline. “…she talks about how he found joy in his grandchildren even though he was almost completely aphasic. His language changed to the point where he spoke in kind of vague poetic circles. But he took delight in his grandchildren.” “For me,” Flood says, “it’s like, if I can’t say much or articulate much, just prop me up and let me see my grandkids and my great-grandkids play and I’ll just probably weep and hopefully be able to just be present at least and know who they are or be able to receive the love from them.”

Accepting the Reality of Aging

“I remember this elderly lady from my childhood,” Flood says, “who was always delightful, always positive, joyful. I went to an open house and she was there. Had dementia. And she met me and saw me for the first time like 15 times at that party and every time she would say ‘Ooooo, Randy, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!’ If you just recognize the beauty of her having gratitude multiple times, it’s like she’s still having a human experience.” “Absolutely!” says DeVries.

Reflecting on their friendship and biking experiences, DeVries speaks to the reality that “there will come a time when you and I can’t ride our bicycles anymore. And I don’t look forward to that, but that will happen.” But Flood doesn’t see that as putting a stop to their experiences saying,” We might not be able to ride hundreds of miles. We might be able to waddle somewhere to the local brewery or coffee shop.” This inspires DeVries who follows with, “I am not above buying either an electronic assist bike or a tricycle. I will ride a tricycle if I can do it at 90!” “And we’ll put a big horn on it for you,” replies Flood. “Yes, we will.”

The conversation between Flood and DeVries ends there but their work with men and the challenges of aging continues personally and professionally. They believe that by broadening the definition of what masculinity looks like, society can help men and their loved ones move through the human experience of aging with grace and gratitude.

The Men’s Resource Center provides men the opportunity to revision masculinity and break away from common stereotypes that hold them back from living life fully. You can contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call (616) 456-1178 for information about its work with men through in-person and online counseling/coaching programs. Also, feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.