Aging and the Well-Lived Life

Sunday, May 27, 2007

What is it

Aging is a physical process that will always be with us.  But conceptions of aging, views about the contributions older people can make to society, and what society owes them change from era to era and differ from culture to culture. In conjunction with the Stanford Humanities Center, John and Ken explore the issues involved in growing older with their guest, Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and a live audience at the Hyatt Residence in Palo Alto.

Listening Notes

Today's show is recorded in front of a live audience in the Classic Residence by Hyatt in Palo Alto, California, and John and Ken begin by thanking the wonderful audience of seniors and the supporters of Philosophy Talk who made this show possible. Ken starts by discussing aging in general: the aging of rocks, whales, and even planets, and wonders what is special about the human aging process from a philosophical perspective. John notices that only humans have a conception of the aging process: we know when we are born and we know that eventually we will die. Ken adds that we can look backward and forward in time in a way that other animals cannot, and evaluate different stages of our lives in perspective. Ken wonders what this special human trait means for the pursuit of happiness and how to flourish in our lives, and John helps him discuss some philosophical possibilities.

Ken introduces Laura Carstensen, professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Director of the Life-Span Development Laboratory, and John asks her whether aging necessarily means a decline in health, or whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy we all buy into. Laura believes that aging is not necessarily a spiraling decline towards death, and that this predominant belief has been a barrier to much research in the scientific community that could make the aging process less detrimental to our health. Ken wonders about the history of aging and the idea of "old age" and Laura explains that human society is understandably confused about old age because our life-expectancy has skyrocketed in the last century. Only recently has the proportion of elderly become significant, to the point where their issues have become central to our society. John wonders about the evolutionary benefit to having so many old people around, and notices that there isn't nearly such a wide range of ages in other animals, like dogs. Laura discusses the philosophical questions regarding this new stage of life: What is old age for? What role can the elderly play in society? How do our elderly relatives help us survive from an evolutionary standpoint?

Laura answers some of these questions with the "Grandmother Hypothesis," which explains the usefulness of older females in societies and how they help offspring survive across the animal kingdom. John and Ken are dismayed about the uselessness of grandfathers, and discuss some of the philosophical implications of these evolutionary theories. John and Ken then move on to the question of flourishing after significant life changes--aging necessarily comes with some physical and mental changes, how can we lead happy lives with these changes in mind? What can society do to help its citizens thrive through all parts of their lives?

Laura goes on to discuss fascinating psychological findings that describe real changes over the human life-span, and the importance of our temporal contexts in making goals. Members of the audience ask questions relevant to their experiences as seniors, and John, Laura, and Ken relate philosophical theories of aging and happiness to their everyday issues.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:51): Zoe Corneli talks with an aging quadriplegic about his perspective on the aging process and his struggle to flourish regardless of the challenges of his disability.
     
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:56): Ian Shoales discusses Robert Sapolsky's essay "When Do We Lose Our Taste for the New?" and the way we become attached to things we experience in our youth but lose our taste for the new at a certain age.
 
 

Laura Carstensen, Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy, Professor of Psychology, Director, Stanford Center on Longevity

 
 
 

Bonus Content

 

EXTENDED INTERVIEW with Hyatt resident Harry Lewenstein

 

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