Before the frat party, the nursing home
Some of us could live to be 150.
That's according to Harvard University's David Sinclair, Ph.D. Last Friday, he said drugs currently in human testing could prevent age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's and extend lifespans.
This apparently great news gave me pause. These drugs sound like a pharmaceutical Fountain of Youth, and (spoiler alert) everyone knows these fountains are never all they're cracked up to be. But I also wonder if the hope of an extended, drug-enabled youthfulness might be unhealthy for current young adults.
NPR blogger Leah Pickett thinks today's twenty-somethings may be more afraid of aging than previous generations of young adults. In a blog last week, she said her peers seem unreasonably obsessed with wrinkles and gray hairs. She thinks their fear is fed by a cultural obsession with “youth and beauty” and a media diet of geriatrics “stereotyped as foul-mouthed curmudgeons, busybody neighbors or depressed individuals in need of Zymbalta, Viagra and Depends.”
I'd argue that fear of aging is also fed by the invisibility of the elderly in our society. We all too often ignore seniors or otherwise marginalize them in social situations. “Older people are invisible in society after a certain point,” said Nancy Perry Graham, editor in chief of AARP The Magazine, in a New York Times article last May. “It's one of the last remaining acceptable prejudices.”
If we don't interact much with older people, they come to seem alien. And then isn't it natural to fear becoming one of those strange creatures known as senior citizens?
When it comes to young adults' attitudes about aging and the elderly, it's hard to figure out a starting point for changing the status quo. But to bring more young adults and seniors together for quality interaction, the federal work-study program may be one place to begin.
There's already a work-study program that places college students in nursing homes. But I didn't know about this option when I was a student in the not-so-distant past. I participated in America Reads. The Clinton administration launched this high-profile initiative to tackle abysmal national literacy rates, and there were flyers all over campus encouraging work-study students to join up as a reading tutor in a local school. The country now is looking at a rapidly growing senior population with potentially costly and complex needs. Shouldn't there be government support for a well-advertised program with a catchy name that encourages college students to work at a local nursing home?
A nursing home may be a harder sell than an elementary school as a potential workplace. But appealing to Millennials' strong sense of altruism may pay off. Appealing to their love of technology is also a no-brainer. Recent studies show nursing home residents stand to benefit from greater use of technology, whether they're connecting with loved ones over Facebook or getting their heart rate up with some Wii bowling.
Yet teaching residents about email, Skype and Facebook, and helping them use these tools on a regular basis, may be too time-consuming for staff to tackle. Isn't it possible that smartphone-savvy, tablet-loving, social media-fluent college students would rather earn a work-study paycheck playing video games with seniors than shelving library books or washing dining hall dishes?
Of course, bringing more young adults into the long-term care setting would not transform attitudes about aging overnight. Many residents could teach students about growing old with grace and demystify this stage of life, but nursing homes are places where some of the most challenging aspects of aging are confronted as well — and even a good marketing campaign won't get the truly fearful or squeamish to sign up as a work-study tech consultant at the nearest senior living center. But if nursing home life becomes less mysterious to some portion of the college crowd — who might tweet and even talk about their experiences with their peers — it would be a step toward changing perceptions more generally.
If Pickett is right about the rise in negative talk about aging, creating a less fearful and more realistic mindset about growing older should be a priority. After all, the Fountain of Youth doesn't come in pill form yet, and no one's getting any younger. Well, almost no one.