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Meredith Alexander

Stanford conference invites young people to discuss aging

Scholars on aging are going to have an unusual audience at a town hall-style meeting this week: college students. The meeting, "Why Is Aging a Young Person's Issue? A Town Hall Meeting," is organized by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) and is specifically designed to bring young people into a dialogue about growing older in America. The meeting is part of the institute's Difficult Dialogues Program, an ongoing forum on gender and ethnicity.

"The choices people make very early in life are going to affect the end of life," said Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of IRWG, who organized the meeting to be held in Kresge Auditorium on May 4 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Young people need to plan for their own old age. And the graying of the U.S. population that's already begun will affect their careers directly, Carstensen pointed out. "They're the first generation that's going to be experiencing this very large difference in age distribution. If you become a lawyer or doctor, most of your clients are going to be old people," she said.

Students and scholars will exchange views about more than just the "crisis" that a graying population poses to the United States. For while policymakers and politicians frequently fret about the growing ranks of old people, some creative thinkers are proposing new, more positive ways to look at aging and the elderly.

The concern stems from the fact that the average life expectancy in developed nations around the world is about 30 years longer than it was at the turn of the 20th century. As a result, increased pressure has been placed on health care systems as well as social services such as Social Security.

But instead of taking for granted that added years will become added retirement, scholars and panelists suggest that those years could be inserted in other stages of life say, added years of education or breaks from work. Perhaps new policies could devise ways to make the culture of work and of retirement more flexible, Carstensen pointed out.

The meeting also will deal with an often-forgotten fact: The majority of elderly people are women. Women have special needs as they grow older, an issue that deserves more attention. "Feminists have been bad about addressing aging women's issues it's fallen through the cracks," Carstensen said.

By the age of 85, for every 100 women there are only 39 men. Most older woman are widowed. "Nobody plans to be widowed we're not taught to think about it and plan for it," Carstensen said.

The panel that will discuss these issues includes seven Stanford scholars: Carstensen; Elizabeth Roden, senior scholar at IRWG; economics Professor John Shoven; medicine Associate Professor Mary Goldstein; Gwendolynne Yeo, director emerita of the Stanford Geriatric Education Center; mechanical engineering Professor Dennis Carter; and neurology Assistant Professor Thomas Rando, director of the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.

Other scholars on the panel will include sociology Professor Carroll Estes of the University of California-San Francisco; psychology Professor James Jackson of the University of Michigan; demography Professor Ronald Lee of the University of California-Berkeley; political science Professor Robert Binstock of Case Western Reserve University; and economics and public administration Professor Timothy Smeeding of Syracuse University.


By Meredith Alexander

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