Talking about youth and aging

Penn is known as a place where interdisciplinary study flourishes. Still, it’s rare to find a pediatrician sharing research with an art history professor or a nutritionist debating a point with a Wharton management expert. Audiences were treated to an afternoon of such chatter Nov. 4 when scholars from all 12 schools took part in a Faculty Senate sponsored symposium on “Youth & Aging.”

Introducing the conference, Penn President Amy Gutmann talked about challenges at both ends of the life cycle. How to prepare young people to cope with the “dislocating changes” of modern life and how to help our aging population stay healthy, alert and happy as they live longer are “big questions,” said Gutmann, and the “need for conversation is truly urgent on both an individual and institutional level.”

Starting out

Briskly and humorously moderated by School of Social Policy and Practice Dean Richard Gelles, the panel on youth was asked whether things are worse for children in society today than ever before. Considering how “hideous” childhood has been throughout most of history, said Michael Zuckerman, a history professor, it would be impossible for it to be worse today. In the context of the last century or so, though—ever since children became the “moral center of our existence”—kids do have it worse now, said Zuckerman, since adults increasingly “cease to want to be adults.” How will our kids ever learn to grow up, he asked, if parents remain intent on pursuing their own pleasures and freedoms and shirk the responsibilities of adulthood?

Shifting perceptions of parenthood aside, many panelists agreed that economic inequity is to blame for much of what ails today’s children. “My kids and your kids,” noted Practice Professor of Law Alan Lerner, “are doing just fine.” Peter Kuriloff, a professor of education, agreed that the U.S. has a “huge problem with kids in the bottom half to third of economic capacity,” and pointed out that in New Zealand it’s the schools with the poorest children that receive the most government funding.

Sociology professor Elijah Anderson talked about providing expert testimony for a jailed youngster who became a drug dealer at the age of 8 and is now on death row for ordering at least four murders. That story should break our hearts, responded Amy Hillier, an assistant professor of city and regional planning. Though most of us don’t live anywhere like the Chester slum where that young man grew up, said Hillier, we all need to be sensitive to the message children are getting about how valuable they are when they walk around their neighborhood. And, she added “We’re all complicit until we accept that our lives are diminished by their losses.”

The golden years?

A second panel, on aging, debated whether caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of the individual or the government, and whether corporations should step up to the plate. Olivia Mitchell, a professor of insurance and risk management at the Wharton School, argued for the latter: “Government isn’t going to be able to deal with all the issues of an aging population so we’re going to have to challenge businesses to do it.” John Trojanowski, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the School of Medicine, talked about individual responsibility and “the important role you can play in taking charge of your own lifestyle.” Citing the remarkable longevity of people in Sardinia, Okinawa and the island of Guam, he said, “There are things you can do.”

Associate Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Huss-Ashmore brought up the critical role of culture and how the experience of age differs depending on that culture. Not all cultures even have a life stage called “old,” she noted, and here in the U.S. our sense of what it means to age is influenced by negative language and imagery. We’re told, for example, that old bodies are unattractive and that the aging of the baby boomers is a potential “disaster.”

Several panelists called for humanity over technology as the end of life nears. Chris Feudtner, an assistant professor of pediatrics, shared his misgivings about “over-medicalizing.” As a doctor, he said, he has come to realize that just when you would expect medical issues to take center stage, they don’t. “It’s not just a technical problem,” he said. “Mortality is part of the gig here,” so it behooves us to think about “what ultimate purpose we’re striving for.”

Jerry Johnson, a professor of geriatric medicine in the School of Medicine, echoed that sentiment and added that society has to decide if its core values are in support of quality of life or lengthening life and the whole industry that goal supports. Training educators, he said, can be “as valuable as the next insulin pump.” When asked by moderator Mary Naylor, a professor of gerontology in the School of Nursing, how best we can curtail ageism, the panel members gave wide ranging answers from, “Stop using the word ‘senior moment’” (Joan Davitt, assistant professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice) to “Delay retirement” (Olivia Mitchell).

Asked what Penn could do to promote useful discourse on aging, nursing professor Lois Evans commented that the University needs more courses with the word “aging” in the title, and Rebecca Huss-Ashmore noted that rarely do we hear the “voices of aging” at Penn, “other than from professors who should have retired long ago.” To which symposium co-chair Neville Strumpf called out in mock outrage from the front row, “Ageism!”

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Originally published on November 17, 2005