Closing with Laura Carstensen

[Originally posted on March 24, 2012 at Longevity.Stanford.Edu]


To wrap up my blog for this quarter, I finally managed to sit down with the one and only Professor Laura Carstensen here at Stanford. For those who don’t know her, she’s the head of the Lifespan Development Laboratory in Stanford’s psychology department (in which I worked many summers ago) and the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

I was particularly interested in learning from Laura how exactly it is that the benefits we associate with community involvement really work their magic and have the beneficial psychological effects research and anecdote tell us they do.

We ended up echoing many themes that have arisen before:

1) You don’t want to transplant out of a solid community to a new place

2) There’s not much worse than losing your social network as you enter a period of uncertainty and perhaps stress. Ideally you have at least three close people in your life, and it’s hard to re-create these bonds in a suddenly new situation.

3) You need access to social services and you want to be integrated into existing, intergenerational communities

4) You want design for a lifetime

Our entire society today is designed largely by and for young people. They’re the default, presumed users of everything from public staircases to tax forms. You need these communities in places that have public transportation and genuinely walkable communities for them to really thrive. See my previous post for more on this.

5) You want strong community

Laura mentioned Lisa Berkman, a social epidemiologist at Harvard, who has shown that just the subjective feeling of social isolation is as big a risk factor as smoking for successful longevity!

In community where you have a role and expectations put on you, you feel needed which has turned out to be a huge predictor of happiness and health outcomes in old age. It’s a real gratification to serve others and give in one’s own special ways.

Furthermore, healthy behaviors follow from a strong community

  1. You eat better when you share meals
  2. You’re more likely to exercise
  3. You have somebody who cares for you and will prod you to take care of yourself

Society as a whole

Eventually we ended up talking about how our entire society basically needs a serious renovation. Everything has been designed for lives that are half as long as the ones we’re facing this century!

Jobs are designed for agile and fast workers. Instead we need jobs that capitalize on the emotional stability and wisdom that come with age.

In our life course we’re expected to spend 20–25 years in school, then work full-time and nonstop while having and raising children for 40–45 years, then retire for what used to be about 5 years but is now often closer to 20. Yet we haven’t seriously rethought this at all! It makes far more sense to have education and learning a part of our entire adult lives, and we also need to work into older age, but ideally with jobs that fit well for our aging workforce. There are failing students who need mentors, schools that need good teachers, corporations and nonprofits that need leadership, and many other vital social functions throughout our country.

So in closing, this is how I envision my life, aging in community:

I’m now graduated from Stanford (this is my very last formal academic assignment!) and have a wonderful teaching job next year with my girlfriend. I hope to broaden and build on my existing Stanford co-op experience by creating, finding, and exploring all manner of communities over the next 5 years or so. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up finding a group of people I feel comfortable setting in with for the long-term, with whom I could raise children and grow until the day I die! Or in the more likely event that my route is more twisted and interesting, I hope to find a community eventually, at least by the time I settle in for my retirement years. And maybe at that point I’ll be set to design or jumpstart a new community, and everything I’ve learned here will be of great service in that endeavor. My expectations are open and I hope my contributions will be many. I’ll shoot for a community:

  • Designed according to universal design principles from the bottom up
  • Integrated across generations
  • Connected to social services
  • Built around a communal spirit with expectations and roles for all community members
  • Built around dedication to shared values, contribution to each other and the world, health, and relationships.

I may return with posts in the future about community experiences, lessons learned, or perhaps a post from my Alternative Spring Break trip where I’ll be learning about Alzheimer’s in the bay area.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve come to see some of the benefits possible through community-based lifestyle choices. I welcome all comments and feedback.

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