Longer lives are among the greatest gifts humans have ever received, Stanford psychologist and aging expert Laura Carstensen, PhD, said Tuesday at the Stanford Health Policy Forum on "Longevity: The Benefits and Burdens of an Aging Society".
But although changes are underway, Carstensen, shown below, and fellow panelist and longtime broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl, pictured above, called for more comprehensive societal — and personal — reforms to fully integrate older Americans into communities and to tap their wisdom and emotional maturity.
"If we just keep going and don't recognize the potential value of this, we will pass up probably the greatest potential to change the world that we've ever faced," Carstensen said.
Carstensen and Stahl joined host Paul Costello, chief communications officer of the School of Medicine, in a wide-ranging discussion, which touched on the biology of aging, its numerous societal effects, the lingering effects of ageism and grandparenting.
Stahl, who is on tour following the recent release of her book, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting, is calling for grandparents from all walks of life to get involved in the lives of their grandchildren:
It is good for us, it contributes to our health and happiness, it is good for our children, who are working... it is good for our grandchildren.
If you have strained relationships with your own children, now is the time to fix them, she said: "Grovel — do whatever you have to do." In addition, the number of grandparents who are the primary caregiver for their grandchildren — due to addiction, imprisonment, or a variety of other factors — is growing, and these older adults are in dire need of support and recognition, Stahl said.
And for those who don't have any grandchildren? Find one, Carstensen suggested. People shouldn't have any trouble finding a child in need of a calm, loving stand-in grandparent, she said.
Carstensen and Stahl also discussed how the historical stigma attached to aging and grandparenting is diminishing, but it still precludes society from fully harnessing the wisdom and hard-won life lessons of older Americans. For example, when workforces include people of all ages, their success increases significantly, Carstensen said.
"Envision older people as being the calvary coming to [assist]," Carstensen commented. "There is a lot of need in this world."
"I think we are in the very eye of a huge change," Stahl said. One sign of such change: Age hasn't been a major campaign factor for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or for Donald Trump, the panelists pointed out.
Previously: A look at aging and longevity in this "unprecedented" time in history, Genetic links to healthy aging explored by Stanford researchers and Walking and aging: A historical perspective
Photos by Norbert von der Groeben