I recently attended a roundtable discussion of Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers at Stanford University moderated by Tom Brokaw. My colleagues and I, from the Northern California chapter of the Life Planning Network, wanted to hear what some of the top researchers and representatives of the Boomer and Mature generations had to say about the new frontier for these aging generations.
The panel consisted of the President of Stanford John Hennessy, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Laura Carstensen, the head of AARP Barry Rand, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg (only 40) and a world renowned expert on stress, neuronal degeneration and aging, Professor Robert Sapolsky.
Some of the highlights of the morning where articulated by Laura Carstensen who seemed to be the most optimistic of the group. She offered an innovative idea about how we use the 30 bonus years, that we in the Western world have given ourselves through better nutrition, hygiene and disease prevention. Instead of tacking those bonus years on the end of our lives, that we stretch out adolescence and young adulthood to give the younger generation more time for education and exploring alternatives before settling down to a career and family.
Dr Sapolsky reported that as we age, our horizon begins to shrink; therefore, we have less stress. Life experience, gives elders perspective on many issues such as presidential elections and political power changes. We are less anxious because we have seen it all before. We also know that we won’t be living will not live that much longer. On the other hand, he pointed out that the folks in their 30’s and 40’s suffer the most from stress. They experience anxiety about all that life is throwing at them and the uncertainty of making the right decisions.
Dr Sapolsky also spoke about the research findings reporting that among both humans and primates, the groups that have healthy and long-lived elders have the healthiest infants. In addition, the tribes or herds tend to survive at higher rates when elders are included because they hold the wisdom for the group. For instance, for elephants, an old female who knows where the water hole is over the mountains into the next valley, will help the herd survive droughts. Estrogen is the greatest indicator of long life. That’s why in both the animal and human worlds many more females live to a ripe old age then males. These findings suggest the value of the wisdom of older women in helping us survive the critical challenges in our world today.
Tom Brokaw tried several times to get AARP president, Barry Rand, to make a commitment on the part of his organization to look at the entitlements of the Boomers. But Mr. Rand was not willing to go that far. He did speak about other critical issues: the high percentage of those in their 50’s and beyond who are continuing to support their children in some way; the concern of the AARP members for the solvency of Social Security for the generations to come; and the rise of age discrimination in the workplace as boomers age and stay in the workforce.
Judge O’Connor spoke forcefully about the need for our country to put effort and research money into finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. She pointed out that in the over 80 age categories, an estimated one out of two people will contract the disease. President Hennessy and the rest of the panel agreed, that we need to focus our attention on this illness. Judge O’Connor reminded us that is what we did as a nation several decades ago and as a result, we found a cure for polio.
Ms. Sandberg spoke about the importance of connecting with others as we age and saw the impact Facebook can have on helping the older generation maintain contacts no matter where they live on the planet. She had a lively discussion with Judge O’Connor who prefers the use of snail mail and the phone to stay connected with close friends and family.
Professor Carstensen added to the conversation by stating that we may have the first time in the history 6 generations may be alive at the same time! She suggested that we need to find a way to continue this discussion not just with the boomers but also with the millennials and generation x. The entire panel agreed that the next conversation needs to be trans-generational.
Tom Brokaw finally asked the panel if any country in the world had a good model for the United States to emulate in addressing the needs of our aging population. The resounding response from all the researchers was a surprising “No”. I found myself both excited and challenged by this news. We are truly on the frontier of new territory for the planet. We have an opportunity to create a new design for aging that will benefit future generations.
You can hear the hour and a half discussion for yourself at http://www.stanford.edu/roundtable/webcast/.
Bev and I would love to hear your comments.
And if you are interested, sign up for the Positive Aging conference in Los Angeles, December 7-10. Bev and I will be making a presentation, “Principles and Practices to Support Clients in Their 3rd Act”, on 12/8. (http://www.positiveaging.fielding.edu/).