(New Thinking on Old Age, by Hal Jacobs, from the Fall 2011 Quadrangle Magazine | see html version)
When sociology professor Ellen Idler invited a guest speaker to talk to her spring 2011 class about aging, she didn’t need to look far to find the perfect spokesperson.
Following a few steps behind a Secret Service agent, former President Jimmy Carter, a University Distinguished Professor at Emory, strolled into the classroom greeting students with his megawatt smile and piercing blue eyes. At 86 years old (he turned 87 October 1st), Carter is still a human dynamo.
“The way he wove together the personal and political issues was just terrific,” says Idler a week later in her office. She acknowledges that aging isn’t the most sexy topic. “Most students don’t believe they’re ever going to get old or that old people were ever young.”
But Carter may have changed a few minds. Over the course of his talk (available on the Emory YouTube channel) and his Q&A with students, he affirmed—and embodied—the importance of staying active and involved.
Katy Kruse 13C, a double major in anthropology and sociology, calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“I saw it less about him being old than about him talking about how to live your life to the fullest,” says Kruse.
“One thing I got from President Carter is that he’s just a genuinely good person,” said psychology major Evan Plys 11C. “He cares about people. I was more impressed by his presence than anything else.”
Carter also reinforced one of the most important themes of the class: today’s aging population in the U.S. will have an enormous impact on the students’ future.
“This is a big year for gerontology because this is the year that the baby boomers are turning 65,” says Idler. According to an article in the New York Times (12/31/10) that also cited research by Idler and her former Rutgers University colleague Julie Phillips, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation are now turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 people a day for the next 19 years. That’s 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of the population, placing greater demands on society, from parks and products to senior care facilities.
While the study of gerontology has long been a mainstay in medical and nursing schools, it is now taking a leap forward in Emory College thanks to Idler and associate professor of sociology Corey Keyes.
As a graduate student in the early 1990s, Keyes sensed that things were coming to a head—that the Baby Boomers were going to be living longer, but society wasn’t prepared for it.
So he delved into how people could live healthier and more successful lives, not just longer ones. He began seeing health as something positive, something more than just the absence of disease or infirmity. He created a scale related to flourishing (see Wikipedia for more info) that measures a person’s sense of well-being and purpose.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “At all ages, people who are flourishing are protected from premature morbidity.” He wants people and clinicians—especially the pre-med and public health students who fill his classes—to stop focusing so much on preventing problems from occurring, and start focusing more on promoting and protecting good health, especially mental health.
He also believes that how one starts life will have a great impact later on. “What we’re finding is young people breaking down at alarming rates between the ages of 15 and 24—depression, panic disorder and substance abuse, all three come online between those ages. Once you have it, you’re wounded, scarred for the rest of your life. The risk of it returning is greater as well—we see an upswing of suicide at the end of life.
“So instead of waiting for a cure, we want to treat this by focusing on what it is you really want in your life.” Purpose, meaning, relationships—these are just a few of the things (expressed by Carter as well) that add up to flourishing.
Developing New Programs
Idler’s background in sociology and public health has made her a valuable asset at Emory. After 25 years at Rutgers, she arrived in 2009 with a joint appointment in the College and Rollins School of Public Health; she was also named director of the Religion and Public Health Collaborative, which draws together religion and theology faculty with others in the School of Public Health, the Nursing School, the Medical School and the Ethics Center.
“The recruitment of Ellen Idler to Emory marks an important milestone for aging inquiry at Emory,” says Ted Johnson, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine and epidemiology and director of the Emory Center for Health in Aging. “It’s not simply her own impeccable scholarly credentials, but also her ability to create excitement, lead students to choose aging as a focus of their study, and help develop whole new programs.”
For her spring class, Idler developed partnerships with three centers in the Emory community, giving students an option to perform 20–25 hours of volunteer work instead of writing the traditional research paper. Even she was amazed by the contributions her students made.
Evan Plys created a “Reminiscence and Relaxation” program at A. G. Rhodes Health & Rehab that brought patients together on a weekly basis to talk about their lives and form new bonds. He admits the service learning component of the class gave him the push he needed to go off campus and try something new.
“I was a little hesitant to go to a nursing home and work,” says Plys, who’s also a varsity baseball player. “I love older people and think they’re great, but I just wasn’t sure I could handle it.”
His interest in gerontology was sparked by a variety of factors: his strong relationship with his grandparents, who cared for him when he was young and for whom he returned the favor when they were older; his advisor in the psychology department, senior lecturer Nancy Bliwise, who is also a licensed clinical gerontologist; and a previous summer internship experience for an NPR radio show (“Voices in the Family”) where he researched topics on aging.
“He went above and beyond anything I would’ve expected,” says Melissa Scott Walker, an activities director at A. G. Rhodes. “I think it’s important for him to be recognized for what’s done—creating a community among people where there wasn’t one before.”
Katy Kruse says she was leaning toward being an elementary or special education teacher before taking Idler’s class, which she signed up for mostly because of the service learning.
She then found herself growing more interested in gerontology issues after getting involved in the Toco Hills NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), an organization that connects seniors who live independently in the community to services and social activities.
“I found that I absolutely loved working with older people,” says Kruse, who began assisting at luncheons and eventually took on a larger role handling psychological assessments. “The class really changed my outlook on what I want to do in life.”
Mary Ruf, a rising junior in the Nursing School, volunteered at Clairmont Place, a full-service, independent living retirement condominium community, where she hosted special events and recorded one woman’s oral history. She’s now thinking about going into a geriatric specialty in nursing. She says she learned a lot about resilience from the older people she met. “It got me thinking about what I want my aging experience to be like,” she says.
The class also made her think more about new services, inventions, laws and public policies that are needed for an aging population—something Idler hoped students would take away from the class.
“There really isn’t any professional school that shouldn’t be thinking of aging,” says Idler. In her short time at Emory, she has met “pockets of research and people” from across campus interested in the area. Now it may be a matter of pulling the threads closer together.
From the point of view of Plys, who plans to attend graduate school in clinical gerontology, it seems obvious. “Emory has an opportunity to distinguish itself in a field that is going to be huge. We have Jimmy Carter, we have great hospitals and nursing homes, we have older people living around here, and we have Professor Idler. Emory should be the top school for gerontology.”