I’ve just attended the 2012 Age Boom Academy at the Columbia Journalism School: five days immersed in expert presentations on all aspects of aging, from healthcare reform to new developments in cognitive science. Excellent stuff, and more about it soon. The conference was sponsored by Atlantic Philanthropies, where Pulitzer-Prizewinning writer and New York Times veteran Jack Rosenthal is now a Senior Fellow. On the first day he asked us a question: what should we call the population we journalists are writing about?
Questions I'm asking
As questions come up, here's where I write them down
Somewhere along the way, it becomes painfully obvious that youth is indeed wasted on the young. “If only we’d known then what we know now,” we muse. We’d have taken that job overseas, dumped that creep sooner, flossed nightly . . . and things would have turned out better.
Two friends sent me links to a piece by James Ridgeway’s piece in the Guardian about the future of growing old in America.(Bottom line: not looking good. Better to be British, though not for long or by much.) What caught my eye wasn’t the greedy-geezer-rebutting statistics that millions of older Americans can expect to keep working or to be poor – or both. It was the first line: “In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.”
When I first learned that the oldest Americans are the happiest, I was skeptical. I was still in the grips of the cultural bias that drowns out positive messages about late life. Also, happiness is notoriously difficult to measure. (Ask me right after I’ve eaten a chocolate chip cookie.) So I was intrigued when a counterintuitive factor behind contentment — at any age — surfaced in a recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Last month I went up to Boston to give a talk at the invitation of my friend Sarah Wright, founder and director of Social Work in Progress. The organization provides staffing for healthcare and eldercare organizations; the audience was a mix of administrators, directors of nursing and social workers; and I was honored to kick off its community education and professional development program series in Sarah’s beautiful new office in historic downtown Dedham.
photo credit: Gretje Ferguson Photography
Below, the transcript of my talk, to which people responded warmly. From my end, the best part was hearing from one person after another how gratifying they found working with older people.
In the pile of mail awaiting my return was the Fall Fashion issue of New York magazine, with a chic young woman on its cover. Yawn. “When it came time to cast the cover, we decided . . . to embrace a more expansive view of beauty,” writes Amy Larocca. “We came up with four cover subjects: an 81-year-old woman; a 19-year-old man who can pass quite convincingly as a woman; a mother and daughter . . ; and an old-fashioned yet newfangled muse.” Turned out that my copy just happened to sport the muse, and I stopped yawning.
A friend pointed me towards this insightful article in the Economist about what I’ve been calling the “U-shaped happiness curve." (In Britspeak, that’s “U-bend.”) It attributes widespread corroboration to “a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being,” and observes that the U-bend shows up consistently and globally across 40 years’ worth of data, even when scientists control for cash, employment status and children.
On 9/11, the Animal Rescue League got into Ground Zero faster than Human Services. “They had a plan,” Robert Butler pointed out at the 2008 Age Boom Academy. “How many states practice their nursing home evacuation plans?” The highly safety-conscious Japanese do practice their drills, but it didn’t spare the lives of many elderly residents of tsunami-ravaged Shintona.