Teaching the Young About the Old—With a Little Help from Some Baby Boomers

Mailman Dean Linda Fried asks students to explore what longevity gains mean for themselves and society at large.

Life expectancy has almost doubled during the course of the last 100 years, and it is projected that by 2050, every fifth person on the planet will be over 60 years old. But how do we prepare to benefit from our longer lives? And how does society meet the needs of an aging population?

A new course, “Rethinking (Y)our Longer Lives," offered by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health asks students to explore the meaning of longevity gains for their own lives and society at large. 

Taught this spring by Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School and a leader in the field of geriatric medicine, and epidemiology professor Dana March, the course examines an aging society as a public health success, which offers unprecedented opportunity for people to lead active, fulfilling lives well into their 80s and 90s. But this transformation also has major implications for many aspects of American life, including housing, transportation and social needs.

"The fundamental challenge is our core societal institutions, which were not designed to support a large aging population," Fried said. "Innovative private- and public-sector initiatives, including public policies and programs targeting access to health care, housing and economic security, are needed to support future generations of older people. "

Anna Bryan, a recent graduate who took the course in the spring, said the class was one her favorites during her four years at Columbia. "I think the main idea behind the course is to reframe how we think about aging," said Bryan, who plans to pursue a career in geriatric medicine. [Read a profile of Anna Bryan here] "But it's also to create a group of individuals that are able to contribute to how society actually reacts to this changing demographic."  

Fried said the course, which will be offered next year, was originally conceived to be undergraduates and graduate students in the School of Public Health learning together, but it also proved popular with people over 65 from neighborhoods surrounding Columbia, who participated through Columbia's Lifelong Learners and Auditing Program.

"It has been a gift to have a number of older adults from our community," Fried said. "They have added a diversity of experience perspectives to the class and a magic to the cross-generational discussions we were able to have." 

                                                                                                                                                        — Carla Cantor

For media requests or information, please contact Carla Cantor at 212-854-5276 or carla.cantor@columbia.edu.