Money & Careers

Dr. Jimmie Holland, Psycho-Oncologist: A Woman Who’s Made a Difference

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Dr. Holland long life has given her a perspective on life as an “elder” and society’s fear of aging. Indeed, she and her co-author, psychologist Mindy Greenstein (who offers perspective from her vantage point in midlife) have just published Lighter As We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging. It is a well-received book based on an understanding of how our character strengths carry us through life and how recent research shows that as we reach older age, we appreciate life and its many good aspects more. (See the highly positive review in Women’s Voices by clinical social worker Jane Moffett, who writes frequently for us on emotional-health issues.)

Asked about society’s dismissal of older people and people’s fear of getting older, Dr. Holland muses, “I think the aging process has a lot of similarity to cancer. Aging, too, has been stigmatized, and people have not wanted to admit that they’re old because if they do, they suddenly get a label that says “You’re an old coot —aren’t you going out to pasture? get out of our lives!” I got interested in aging because a lot of people who have cancer are older and they were not treated as well emotionally as they could be. And the population is aging, so the health care system is going to have to adapt to take care of this silver tsunami.

“Ageism is a big problem. When I talk to people who are older, I see that they often handle the crises of illness better than young people do. They’ve had time to develop their character . . . they’ve cut their teeth on a lot of crises over the course of their lives, and they have strengths they call on that keep their emotions more intact without their getting so out of hand, the way young people do. Young people get angry at illness, and you can’t blame them, but older people say, ‘Look, I’ve handled crises all of my life; you can’t hand me much more that I don’t know pretty well how to handle.’

“As we get older, we realize that we are not going to live forever . . . we’re 60, 70—we have less time to live. That seems to change attitudes; we therefore begin to say, ‘Gee, I’ve got to make the best out of every day. I’d better make sure my daughter and I have the right relationship . . .’

“Interestingly enough, we no longer care so much about what people think about us. I’ve heard older people say, ‘Ah, I say what I think now; I’m not trying to go up a career ladder, and people can take me or leave me.’ That’s a new sense of freedom, and that’s what Mindy and I put in our book. In the last ten years, there has been a great deal of research by governments on well-being as a factor in determining public and health policy. Economists have looked at large populations of a country and asked, ‘What is your level of well-being or satisfaction with your life on a scale of 0 to 10?’

“And what they found out was that well-being was high in the twenties but goes progressively downward, and in the fifties it troughs. That’s the time when you’re worried about your career and you wonder who you are, and is this all there is to life? And you have aging parents and adult kids, and is this as good as it’s going to be, or is it going to be worse? So data show that well-being goes up after the fifties and keeps climbing. The sociologists think that the rising level of well-being after people reach 60 relates to how we recalibrate the way we look at life as we realize that the time left is finite. We get a little more grateful for life itself and for the good things about it.”

Does life experience indeed lead to wisdom? Dr. Holland acknowledges that “we don’t think as rapidly as we used to; we do have some moments when we can’t recall a name, so there is some loss of immediate recall. But in the place of that, the data shows that if you give older people complex questions that have an ethical side to them and that really require thought, wisdom, tolerance, and experience, older people do hands down better than younger people. So that’s wisdom. Not everybody who’s old is wise, but I think a lot of people are; they have gained it from their life experience, and use it to solve problems and issues and in teaching younger people.”

And how do we come to terms with the life we have lived? “Erik Erikson believes that in the last stages of life, we become aware of the importance of passing on values to the next generation and we make peace with our lives. I think one does that—looks back over the stages and thinks, ‘Yeah, well, I did about the best job I could have done, given the givens, given the deck I was dealt.’

“I look at the past, too, and put it in perspective, and it feels good.”

No wonder.

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  • Alice Fixx July 18, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Dr. Jimmie Holland is a saint, and a brilliant one at that. I have introduced her to scores of my friends and not a one has not been dazzled by her. Her compassion, generosity and intelligence are unrivaled. She has made an immeasurable difference in the world.

  • Deborah Harkins March 7, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    Hello, Peter

    I will send your nice note to Dr. Holland!


    Deborah Harkins

  • Peter A. Sackett March 6, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    I hope Dr. Holland sees this! We were neighbors of the Holland family way back when they lived in Buffalo. They lived three houses down from us. We were very sad when Jim and Jimmie moved to NYC..along with their children (I hope I get this right!1) Steven, Peter, David, Sally…and I believe one more – I think it was Mary.
    Regardless, we all knew that Dr. Holland Dr. Holland were very special people; brilliant intellect along with that special ability to care for their patients.
    I have never forgotten the Holland Family and the wonderful things Jim and Jimmie taught me. My dad still lives 3 houses from the Hollands!! Peter A. Sackett, Cleveland OH.

  • audia Harkins April 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Dr. Holland is an amazing woman and human being. How wonderful that she was instrumental in creating the field of psycho-oncology. Dr. Holland has dedicated her professional career in research and study for the good of those with cancer, and at 86 continues her work. Terrific!

  • toni myers April 9, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Brilliant. Exciting to read about this remarkable woman and the necessary addition to cancer research and practice she created. I plan to look up how many we have in Seattle. Of all the side effects of cancer,
    the emotional one is the least treated.

  • Liz Robbins April 9, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    What a superb piece, Deborah. Dr. Holland is truly inspirational, and her trail-blazing efforts are remarkable.

  • Wendl April 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you. Excellent article about an outstanding woman and physician. We need more doctors with similar philosophy and practices.