On March 21-25 I attended the 12th annual Age Boom Academy, a seminar for journalists covering “the myths and realities of aging in America.” Billed as a Joint Program by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Journalism School, it was sponsored by the Atlantic Philanthropies, AARP and The New York Times and took place at Columbia. (Previous Age Booms were held at the International Longevity Center and hosted by Bob Butler, whom I sorely missed. It was terrific and I’ll be writing about it more substantively, but in the meanwhile here are some thoughts from assorted speakers that stuck with me.
- Steve McConnell, director of Atlantic Philanthropies Aging Policy Program: McConnell was the first of many to cite the statistic that in 2020, for the first time in history, people over 65 will outnumber people under age 5. “This fact — declining birth rates — has a serious effect on how we describe the phenomenon,” he observed. “There’s the standard gloom and doom economic scenario, versus the one outlined in a book called The Imaginary Time Bomb: the modern world’s growing preoccupation with aging has little or nothing to do with demography but rather is used to justify further reductions in the role of government in the economy and the curbing of the welfare state. [emphasis mine, and hardly neutral]
- Jack Rosenthal, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Philanthropies: “Never before have so many people lived so long. Poor, sick, and old used to be hyphenated. Not any more.”
- Beth Finkel, manager of state programs, AARP-New York: “If you reach 60 with no heart disease or cancer, you can expect to live another 25 years – and I’ve heard 35.”
- • Paula Span: journalist, the New Old Age blog: “In addition to reaching into many segments of society — law, medicine, technology, religion, culture, economic policy — this demographic shift will hit just about every family. The closest historical parallel I came up with was the women’s movement.”
- Michelle Carlson, associate director, Center on Aging and Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “Experience means something. Changes are not absolute and not predetermined. Some people in their eighties function like 20-year olds (and vice versa). There is much to be learned from different types of aging.”
- Dean Linda Fried, Mailman School of Public Health: “An aging population is also about our kids and grandchildren, the world that they will inherit. Our kids are going to live into their nineties, on average. A resilient, robust, cohesive society is all about the transfers across generations. Most of the resources flow from right to left no matter how old the children are. What is our social compact for a society of long lives? What kind of society will we choose to become?”
- Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology, Stanford University: “Older people are in better mental health than young or middle-aged people, which surprises a lot of people.”
- “Everything we learn about aging is more nuanced than we thought. [For example,] for a long time, it was textbook to say that sleep changes with age and the older you get, the less sleep you need. People weren’t separating out the sleeplessness from other factors like illness and arthritis pain. It turns out that you can treat sleep disorders in old people and they’ll sleep just as much as the young. It was also absolutely considered truth that you couldn’t reach 80 without significant cognitive decline. Nobody would say that today. There seems to be a group of about 20 percent of people in their nineties who are escaping the cognitive decline, and who perform as well as middle-aged people. Eighty percent do experience decline, not to be Pollyanna about it, but this is exciting. We should be studying that 20 percent.”
- Karl Pillemer, director, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, and author of 30 Lessons for Living: “Our society is very age-segregated. Americans are more likely to have a friend of a different race than a friend 10 years older or younger.”
- “The older you are the less afraid of dying. Quantitative studies have shown that. Old people are worried about dying in pain, but it’s not an existential fear of death. It’s more experiential.”
Back to Steve McConnell, when Becky Nappi, one of my sharp journalist colleagues, asked him how he feels about growing older: “There’s a lump of pain, and it just moves around. You go get your shoulder fixed and it moves to your ankle. I’ll just wait it out.” I loved that. It may have something to do with the gate theory of pain, which my physical therapist says is why you rub your shin after banging it on a chair. (This generates more sensory input, which modulates the perception of pain.) Less accurately but more entertainingly, I think of it as the Only One Baby Can Cry at a Time theory of pain. That was the deadpan dictum that my husband came up with on the spot when we brought baby #2 home from the hospital and his 2-year-old sister burst into tears. It completely threw her for a loop, giving us enough time to head off her tantrum. When my back hurts, my arthritic shoulder gets no bandwidth. Only one baby can cry at a time.
More sobering was the second half of McConnell’s answer to how he felt about growing older: “I think the hard part is reconciling your image of yourself with the image that exists out there.” Why reconcile ourselves to a distorted social perception? Isn’t the task at hand to bring that image into conformity with the way we olders actually see ourselves?