Julie Miller is a gerontological social worker by training and a filmmaker by hobby. She came to MIT’s AgeLab (where she and her colleagues study how people can live better lives in old age) by way of Northeastern University, where she teaches, and The University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Masters in Social Work. Her current project at the AgeLab is “Forecasting the Aging Future of Generation Y,” which investigates what aging will look like in 2050.
How are roles for older people changing?
The "multigenerational household" used to be characterized primarily by grandma (or grandpa) living with the family. They contributed to the household and to caring for the family, and had a sense of purpose and built-in stimulation and support in exchange. Now, as people are living longer and we are still emerging from the recent economic downturn, the new "multigenerational household" is more frequently comprised, in part, by millennials moving back home after high school or college. For older people, maintaining a sense of connection plays a huge role in maintaining a sense of purpose as they age. The AgeLab works with policymakers, private industry, and academia to really think about how people can continue to thrive and carry a sense of purpose as they age through topics like health and wellness, mobility and transportation, care giving, consumer behavior, and decision-making. All those topics contribute to someone's sense of purpose and dignity.
You've worked to help build communities among older adults with your "Breaking the Ice" curriculum. Why do older adults sometimes have trouble creating and maintaining such communities?
One of the banes of my existence is Bingo, the game that you'll see in senior centers and assisted living facilities. Don't get me wrong: Bingo can really be a staple of bringing people together…. but we can do better. While working with homeless and low-income older adults in the San Francisco Bay Area, I often thought to myself, “How can we break the ice as service providers so older adults can share their wisdom and exchange knowledge and contribute experience to the world?” Bingo, in my opinion, doesn't allow for that. So "Breaking the Ice" creates an opportunity for older adults to connect through discussion and activities to crack open a shell to talk. That's where the Vibrant Aging films come in.
Tell me about those films, Vibrant Aging and Vibrant Aging: Despite Everything.
The "Breaking the Ice" curriculum fed into this idea I was considering: "What does it look like for someone not to just age healthfully, or gracefully, but for someone to exceed those expectations? What does it mean to age vibrantly?" That's where these two films came from. Vibrant Aging is about older adults living with rich resources and Vibrant Aging: Despite Everything is about older adults who are homeless. That was how I ended up at the AgeLab, which was founded in 2000 by Dr. Joseph Coughlin. At the Lab, we continue to ask: People are living longer, but are they living better?
Why is it important for older people to be living better, engaged lives?
Our older adults are the keepers of our stories. The wisdom of the people living in the U.S. really live in them. In order to keep integrity about how we live we need to continue to pass on wisdom from one generation to the next.
How has the idea of retirement changed?
One thing that's important to consider is that now when people retire, that doesn’t actually mean they're retiring. It means they’re going onto their next adventure. We have more careers than we have ever had in the past. That's an opportunity for aging in the U.S. Just because you stopped working doesn't mean you have to completely retire from life. It’s also important to acknowledge the challenges of aging, in terms of isolation and health issues. As someone said to me in Vibrant Aging, “Aging is not for wussies.” To me, what's so incredible is the resiliency that comes with aging.
Why are older people seizing retirement to continue their education?
More than ever, the retirement years are being used to explore new hobbies, interests, and passions. The Boomers are not living their parents' retirements; they are hungry for more. The world is at our fingertips, literally, with rapid changes in technology and the Boomers (unlike their parents' and grandparents' generations) are not "retiring from life" without a fight. That said, we need to think about what educational access looks for people with different resources. A tremendous number of older adults are one bounced check away from homelessness and many older adults are living with economic instability. But there are many more that are thriving. I think lifelong learning is a fantastic concept and we need to make that accessible for all people.
What are the economic benefits of having an elderly population that continues to learn?
The more education we receive, the more empowered we can be to rise out of socioeconomic depression. The National Council on Aging created the "One Away" video campaign to call attention to the effect of economic instability on the lives of thousands of older adults living in the U.S.
What can be done to ensure that elderly people have a purpose and are valued in this country?
We need to consider universal design principles in creating services, policies, and spaces for all generations and abilities, not just “older people.” We also need to find interdisciplinary opportunities in engineering, social work, architecture, private industry, public health, and education to spur new norms for aging. Further, we need to fast-forward to 2050 and plan for the next major older population in the United States and consider challenges unique to them.
What are those challenges?
By 2050, millennials will be chronologically "old” unless science stops us first. School loans, credit card debt, LED screen-induced vision impairments, earbud-inspired hearing loss – these are only some of the things millennials can look forward to as we continue to age. Those staggering statistics about student loans, mixed with the declining presence of entry-level jobs, the increased need for higher education, and the uncertainty of Social Security means millennials should probably plan to work for a long time. And as we have fewer children (and have children later in life) and a shortage of professionals in the field of aging, the question is: Who is going to take care of us?
Interview by Jordan G. Teicher.