Cultural Institutions Can Help Us Redefine Aging

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By Diantha Dow Schull SUMMER 2009

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Connecticut’s cultural and educational institutions are positioned to help mediate one of the greatest bio-demographic changes in history: the aging of the population.   They can offer historical and cultural perspectives on aging, helping us confront assumptions, examine cultural traditions, develop new language, and imagine the state’s future in an aging society.  “…AGE,” a project co-developed by the History Center of the Hartford Public Library and The Amistad Center for Art & Culture, is an exciting example of the ways cultural institutions can challenge us to rethink aging.

As late as 1790, only 20 percent of Americans lived to age 70.  Today more than 80 percent can expect to do so.  In 1900 the average lifespan of an American was 49 years; today it is 75.  People ages 55 and up constitute approximately 13 percent of today’s population but by the middle of this century will account for more than 20 percent.  In Connecticut the 55-and-older age cohort will increase 21 percent by 2015, and all of the net increase in the state’s population between 2010 and 2015 will be among those aged 55 and over.

Nationally, changes in the number and proportion of older adults are only part of our evolution toward an aging society.   Extension of the lifespan and improvements in older-adult health are challenging existing stereotypes and the very definitions of “old” and “aging.”   Today’s older adults, particularly those in the baby-boomer population, are more active, healthier, and independent than earlier retiree cohorts.   They are far more diverse, and increasing numbers of them are continuing to work or serve in their communities.  In addition, more and more are choosing to stay in their home or their community after leaving full-time work, rather than moving to a warmer climate or a new living situation.  This trend, known as aging in place, has caught many planners by surprise.

Connecticut reflects these trends.  In fact, the state has one of the highest numbers of retirement communities in the nation.

The aging population has elicited increased national discussion that has centered on issues such as the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare and the need to provide suitable retirement living and long-term custodial care.   In the context of the current recession, this discussion promises to intensify at both the national and state levels.  However, beyond the economic implications of aging, there are deeper concerns and questions that challenge the cultural expectations of Americans of every age. What are the implications of a longer lifespan on our reproductive lives and family structures?  How are our concepts of “work” and “retirement” changing?  What are the responsibilities of one generation for another when each has a longer life span? How can society benefit from the skills, insights, experiences—indeed, histories—of older Americans?  How do we, or how might we, represent experiences of aging in the arts, literature, and other forms of cultural expression?

The answers to these questions cannot be found in economic data or scientific predictions. They require information from other sources: history, literature, philosophy, material culture, and the visual arts.  They involve fundamentally humanistic dilemmas; their solutions require a humanistic perspective.  Above all, they require historical context.  History, which embraces all aspects of the human condition, from religion and family to labor and the arts, provides access to a past that is also the basis for understanding our present.

In Connecticut, we have a rich landscape of cultural institutions that can help all of us—residents, both young and old, visitors, policymakers, and planners—to reconsider our assumptions about and definitions of aging.   Using artifacts, literature, audio and visual recordings, archival documents, and artistic expressions in all media, the state’s cultural institutions can become centers for learning and dialogue on age.

Several Connecticut institutions have taken the lead in developing programs and services that bring attention to the humanistic dimensions of aging.  The New Haven Free Public Library is one of several Connecticut libraries that have convened Community Conversations and offered book and film discussions.  As a participant in the national Libraries for the Future Lifelong Access Center of Excellence program, it has also created a Transition Center that offers special programming and collections for and about active older adults.   Other libraries that are experimenting in this area are the West Hartford Public Library, Hartford Public Library, Stamford Public Library, and the Ridgefield Public Library.

“….AGE,”  a collaborative project of the Hartford Public Library’s History Center and the Amistad Center, is currently the state’s leading example of cultural programming around aging. [see page xx for more information.]

Hartford’s “…AGE” project is one of three projects that form a national initiative, Age in America, funded by the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services (www.ageinamerica.com).  The two-year program is designed to demonstrate ways in which museums and libraries, working together, can strengthen public understanding of aging as a historical and cultural phenomenon.   In addition to Hartford, cultural institutions in Suffolk County, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia are mounting their own programs.

Hartford’s “…AGE” project has stimulated new interpretations of age and aging in the Hartford area and is offering an instructive model for age-related programming by cultural institutions within and beyond Connecticut.   I hope you will join in one of the activities, see the exhibition, and, most of all, rethink your own assumptions about aging in Connecticut.

Diantha Dow Schull is principal of DDSchull Associates LLC, providing advisory services to foundations, libraries, and museums. Schull, who lives in Southbury, is a member of the board of the Connecticut Humanities Council and preservation advisor to the Town of Southbury.

 

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