By David Baugher. This article originally appeared on the West End Word website.
Like many freshmen at Washington University, 18-year-old Samantha Haubenstock is considering what life will be like as a senior.
But the kind of senior she has in mind isn’t the one most might assume.
“When I get older, stairs probably wouldn’t be a good thing to have,” said Haubenstock, who had grown up wanting a multistory home but now considers the mobility problems people can experience when they become elderly. “I think I learned a lot of things I can do now to help my life in the future – just small things that people wouldn’t really think about.”
Haubenstock is one of 75 students who are thinking more about their eventual lives as senior citizens thanks to “When I’m Sixty-Four: Transforming Your Future,” a unique course at Washington University which finished its third semester this month. The course title is a reference to a popular song by The Beatles.
The class, which is offered for credit, was designed to promote discussion among younger people regarding issues important to senior citizens and how older people might deal with topics ranging from sexuality to transportation to retirement.
“We had the idea that you can’t wait until you are 65 to begin planning for your post-65 years,” said Nancy Morrow-Howell, director of the school’s Center for Aging. “There is too much to do in terms of taking care of finances, figuring out how to stay engaged, figuring out how to stay healthy.”
It is a fact that’s becoming more salient for young people today than those in the past since life spans are getting longer.
“They better plan on living into their 80s or 90s,” she said as she eyed the auditorium of mostly teens and 20-somethings. “A lot of them are going to see 100.”
Morrow-Howell, whose background is in social work, leads the class with assistant professor of occupational therapy Susy Stark and Professor Brian Carpenter, whose work focuses on psychology and aging.
Morrow-Howell believes that the fact-based presentations and small group work on individual issues can help break down biases against the elderly.
She also feels that the content may impact students’ vocational paths.
“We try to get them thinking about professions related to our aging society,” she said. “What do architects need to do differently? What about financial planners and social workers? We try to convince them that careers in aging are really needed.”
Carpenter said students may find the information illuminating.
“I think many of them were surprised at how relevant issues about aging were to them in their personal lives,” Carpenter noted. “They see their parents trying to figure out how to help their grandparents right now and I think it got them to think about when their parents get old, how they are going to be involved in taking care of them.”
“What I hope students gain from the course is the ability to think through important issues related to aging that are going to impact them both personally and professionally, so that they have a handle on some of the things they can anticipate and some ideas about what they might do about it,” Stark said.
Some of the ways that’s accomplished can be quite innovative. For starters, every student’s spot in the lecture hall has a small paper placard containing their name and two photos. One is a current picture of the student and the other is a version run through an app that “ages” them into what they might look like as senior citizens.
Thirteen guests from STL Village, a seniors group, often attend the sessions to give thoughts and interact with their younger peers. The STL Village mission is to “enhance the quality of life of people age 50+ who want to live at home and stay active as they age.”
“I think it is something that needs to be taught because everyone is getting older,” said Delores McCrea, a 78-year-old participant. “Every day when we wake up, we are a few hours older and it shows how our life is evolving from childhood through being senior citizens.”
Eighty-year-old Henrietta Parram said she was impressed by her experiences with her younger counterparts.
“These kids in this class are so brilliant, so smart and have so much wisdom because for the problems we deal with, they gave solutions that were simple and practical,” she said. “We put in senators and congressmen who don’t have some of the wisdom and common sense that these children have.”
Freshman Elizabeth Barbaresi, 18, said she liked the structure of the course and its focus on different aspects of aging as well as material on the problems of aging. She noted that the size of the Baby Boom Generation was going to present many changes for society now that most are seniors.
“A large concentration of our population in the next couple of years is going to be elderly,” she said. “With demographic change there are going to be a lot of differences that will have to be implemented within our infrastructure, government, jobs, etc. I think that will create a lot of new opportunities.”
Noah Saffer, 18, a computer engineering freshman, said he found the class rewarding.
“It prepared me to think about how I’m going to manage my finances, how I’m going to have to deal with my health later in life, how I’m going to have to choose a great place to live where I have access to transportation and other things,” he noted.
Morrow-Howell said it is all about teaching the vitality of the “social contract” that binds everyone together.
“We’re all connected,” she said. “There is no us and them.”
For more information on this class or Friedman Center for Aging programs and activities, contact publichealth.wustl.edu/aging