By Danna Downing
Last month, I had the privilege of “zooming” out to Stanford University in California for the 2021 Century Summit. At this meeting, the Stanford Center for Longevity research team reported on a project that began in 2018, called the New Map of Life.
By the middle of this century demographers predict that as many as half of today’s five-year-olds can expect to live to the age of 100. This once unattainable milestone would be the endcap of a trend that has seen human life expectancies double between 1900 and 2000.
Longevity is one of the greatest achievements in human history. Fueled by reductions in infant mortality, improvements in sanitation and medicine, increases in public education and rising standards of living, this accomplishment has been too rapid to be adequately understood and accommodated by public institutions, economic policies and social norms that must change for those who can expect to live such long lives. The goal of the Center for Longevity is not to increase the length of our lives. Rather, it is to identify ways to enhance the quality of century-long living so that people experience a sense of belonging, purpose and worth at all stages of life.
The current crisis mindset about the aging of society distorts our perspectives about longevity and keeps us from unique opportunities to redesign institutions, practices, and norms so that they align with today’s reality of a more age-diversified society. The Stanford researchers have found powerful evidence that increased longevity holds enormous potential for society if the challenges of that growth are addressed now, laying the groundwork for a society that is healthier, more equitable, and prepared to thrive.
We who are parents, grandparents, older adults, community leaders, and employers all have a role to play as ten million people turn sixty-five every day. People of all ages need to continually increase their knowledge about aging. We need to begin to prepare our children for longer living. We need to invest in the centenarians of the twenty-second century.
Embedded in these objectives are key ideas about lifelong learning and the inclusion of much more social and emotional engagement in that lifelong learning. We must also embrace the complementary skills that older adults have earned in their earlier years (knowledge, stability, and the need to give to others) and work harder to match them with the energy and curiosity of our youth. We can all testify to the power of the presence of an adult who is willing to invest in a child. We could benefit mightily if we created scenarios where older workers could be integrated into the workforce as mentors, part-time employees, or even as entrepreneurs. It is time to re-evaluate things such as retirement at 65 as a meaningful life marker and be more innovative about how we prepare for our older years so as to support life to the fullest to the very end of life.
It feels like a daunting task for someone my age, but we can only start where we are and then take one step at a time. Let’s stop thinking about the irony of calling later life the “golden years“ and put energy into feeding the underdeveloped potential of older adults to contribute and support themselves and younger generations.
Many readers of this column have reached out with support, shared concerns, and ideas about what it means to become an older adult. This inspires me to invite interested older adults in South County to join their peers for a South County “summit” to think better together about how we can better meet the challenges of living longer. The idea may sound a little lofty and academic, but the intention is simply to put our heads together and focus on the ways we might age with more grace, dignity and satisfaction from knowing we have lived to our full potential. In my mind, this is a true adventure. Plans may emerge, but if not, that is OK. Who knows what might happen when a few well-seasoned souls gather together?
The staff at South County Community Services and Generous Hands has generously invited us to do this “summit “ at their offices located at 606 N Spruce Street where we can keep socially distant and safe. Masks are respectfully required, and hopefully attendees will have been vaccinated and boosted. If you are unable to attend in person, please let us know. We will make every effort to keep you informed and engaged.
The date for this event is on Sunday, February 6, from 2-4 pm. To reserve your place, please contact Danna Downing with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you may also call 269-779-5453. Space is limited, in interest of health and safety. If warranted, another session may be offered.
By Danna Downing