When I’m 64: Imagining the future of aging

New interdisciplinary freshman course examines personal, professional relevancy of aging revolution

Faculty and students discuss the new course, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and the implications of our current demographic revolution.

Today’s freshmen students have a 50 percent chance of living to see their 100th birthdays.

They are in the middle of a demographic revolution that will shape every aspect of their lives.

A new interdisciplinary course for freshmen introduced this fall at Washington University in St. Louis, “When I’m Sixty-Four: Transforming Your Future,” aims to prepare students for this aging revolution and to encourage them to examine their present and future lives in more detail.

“We are trying to get students who are only 18 years old to think about the fact they may have another 80 years ahead of them,” said Brian Carpenter, PhD, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences.

“The reality is, the decisions they are making now are going to shape what the next 80 years will look like for them,” he said. “That goes beyond personal choices and into decisions about aging for the next generation. Those are the issues we are tackling in this course.”

Carpenter is co-teaching the course with Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor at the Brown School and director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging in the Institute for Public Health; and Susy Stark, PhD, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. All three also are Insitute faculty scholars.

Personal and professional

“From the beginning, we conceived of the course content as being personally and professionally relevant to the students,” Morrow-Howell said. “Personally, in how to plan for retirement, how to think about family roles and caregiving, and how to promote their health across the life course. And professionally in thinking about what disciplines working on issues of an aging society might interest them as they make decisions about career paths during their time here.

“There are not enough people choosing careers related to aging, and we hope this class might help bring more talented people to this important work,” she said.

The course is one of four 2014 recipients of interdisciplinary teaching grant awards from the Office of the Provost. “Earth’s Future: Causes and Consequences of Global Climate Change” and “Fair Division in Theory and Practice” are set to launch in spring 2015, and “The Art of Medicine” will debut in fall 2015.

“The world that our students will graduate into is characterized by complex needs and large social problems that require thinking across disciplinary boundaries to develop innovative solutions,” said Marion Crain, JD, vice provost and the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law in the School of Law.

Examining big problems

“We are excited to support courses like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ that tackle significant challenges for the next age and model intellectual discourse across disciplines in ways that are synergistic rather than polarized,” Crain said. “Our long-term goal is to design a signature program for undergrads that capitalizes on the university’s unique combination of a top-flight liberal arts program and highly rated professional schools.”

Carpenter, Morrow-Howell and Stark each have a research and clinical interest in aging and have collaborated in this area several times in the past. The course is a way for them to reach a new generation.

“No matter what your major is, you will need to know something about older adults,” Carpenter said. “We want to educate our students on the aging population and to show them an overview of the career opportunities involved with older adults and aging issues.”

The grand vision for the course, Carpenter said, is to tie this learning back to the residence halls by having clusters of students with similar interests living near each other and engaging in small discussion sessions in which faculty associates would be actively engaged.

“There will be nearly limitless opportunities for a career in aging,” Stark said. “There is exponential growth expected for nearly every direct service discipline in health care, and there are vast opportunities for the development of new services and products that can support our aging society.

“Shifting demographic trends will touch every aspect of our society. Professionals with an understanding of aging issues will be highly valued,” Stark said.

Students find value

Students in the course have been working on research projects in small groups. They are examining a variety of organizations in the St. Louis area and interviewing them on their readiness to deal with the challenges presented by an aging population. Students will present their findings during a poster presentation at the end of the semester.

“We want to demonstrate for students, shortly after they arrive on campus, that the transformative power of a university lies not just in its individuals — the scores of world-class experts and leaders in their fields — but also in the possibilities that are created when they come together in conversation,” said Jennifer R. Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

“Our whole is greater than the sum of our parts, and we want our students to carry that knowledge with them as they accumulate all the pieces of their college experience,” Smith said.

Students have enjoyed tackling thought-provoking questions in the course.

“I chose to take this course hoping to learn a little more about the implications of population aging in America,” said Shayel Patnaik, a freshman in Arts & Sciences. “After a few weeks of class, I was thrown into something much greater than several interesting facts and case studies about those topics. I was immersed in new perspectives and encouraged to think critically and holistically about how policy and infrastructure affect older adults.

“Each lecture has pulled me deeper into an exploration of the self,” Patnaik said. “Equipped with an idea of what will accompany the aging of this country and its people, I’ve started to really re-evaluate my health, my creativity, my relationships and my general sense of purpose in life.

“‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is the most enriching and transformative academic experience I have had the privilege of being a part of,” he said.