My name is Lauren Fleming, and I am a fourth year continuing student at UCSD. I am completing a major in Global Health, as well as a minor in Literature/Writing. It has been three years since I was a full-time student at UCSD. During this brief hiatus, I worked as a paralegal and gained experience in workers' compensation, criminal defense, and civil litigation. Now that I have returned to UCSD, I hope to leverage my experience in the legal field with relevant course work pertaining to health issues in order to address growing public health concerns from a legal perspective.
The prospect of participating in the Life Course Scholars program strongly appealed to me because the need to create an environment in which our elders can thrive is an issue that is very close to my heart. As an only child raised primarily by my grandparents, I have a sense of the profound value that older and more experienced generations can provide not only to their families, but also to the communities in which they live. I envision a world in which children may benefit from the presence and wisdom of their grandparents and great-grandparents in such a way that is not restricted by ill health or poor cognition. The opportunity to age gracefully should be promoted within the realm of human rights. Policymakers must recognize that a healthier aging population will allow for significant improvements in government-based aid programs to retirees. A viable population of elderly individuals will create avenues for new economic opportunities--that is, there is significant potential for healthy and able-minded older adults to address critical environmental issues or to be engaged in improving the lives of children and families in need of support.
With the help of well-funded research institutions and passionate scholars, changes can be made in both the social atmosphere and the economic climate such that healthy aging may be made a priority. At this early stage of the Life Course Scholars program, the activities we have participated in have prompted us to think deeply about the conditions necessary to promote and foster healthy aging at all stages of life.
In our second meeting of the quarter, we simulated the "life course" in a democratic developed nation. The board game resembled the popular childrens' game LIFE, but the spaces our "vehicles" would occupy each represented various socioeconomic outcomes: having reliable transportation or proper health care allowed us the opportunity to move forward two or three spaces, whereas events such as the discovery of pollution near our residence impeded our progress. Our cohort split into teams of three to effectuate the game. Each team was assigned a distinct profile of a child, identifying in detail the parents' income level, educational status, and weight at birth. Depending on various risk and protective factors, the "child" embodied by each team interacted with the environment simulated by the game differently than did other competing "children." While the model was a very basic representation of the challenges and opportunities presented to many people born across a vast spectrum of socioeconomic potential, it reinforced the idea that upward mobility as it pertains to positive health outcomes is difficult to achieve without a fundamental platform that enhances access opportunities for all, regardless of socioeconomic status.
At the close of this exercise, we were directed to envisage the lifestyle we will come to know at the age of 80 years old. Picturing myself nearly 60 years from now, I idealize a retired life not unlike that enjoyed by my grandparents. Having immigrated to the United States from Korea after an eight-year stint in Uganda, my grandparents successfully raised five children and lived in three different states. They are proud to have eight bright grandchildren, all between the ages of ten and 28. At 85 years old, they are moderately independent. While my grandfather no longer drivers his 4-Runner, the two are mobile and stay active by taking walks through the spacious, scenic walkways surrounding their apartment complex. They are in such great shape that they regularly take the stairs in lieu of the elevator up to their third-story apartment. Their eldest daughter, my mother, plays an active role in their life by taking them out to meals and facilitating their errands at least twice a week.
I am aware that this state of good health is a rarity among older Americans. In fact, the statistics are staggering. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 40% of persons over the age of 65 have at least one disability. More than half of the individuals in this age bracket who have not graduated from high school have a disability, which is twice the rate of those with at least a bachelor's degree (26%). As outlined by the CDC, elderly populations have exceptionally high rates of hypertension and obesity. Alzheimer's Disease also poses a great risk to individuals over 80 years of age. As the population of elderly individuals in the U.S. continues to grow, we are invariably faced with the question of how to treat patients with degenerative illnesses for which there are no known cures.
The greatest lesson that I have drawn from the LCS program thus far is that healthy aging is something that must be planned for over an individual's lifespan. The avenues toward healthy aging emerge at birth--perhaps even beforehand. With adequate investments in education and by protecting the right to a healthy environment, society at large can foster an environment in which everyone can be anticipated to age gracefully and can plan for good health in their old age.
There are few things I enjoy more than sitting down to a home-cooked Korean meal with my grandparents. They are my source of strength. Being reared by a couple who have endured life's greatest challenges has imbued in me sturdy and reliable values. It has bred a compassion for all individuals. Spending time with my grandparents is always accompanied by the sweet nostalgia of childhood and a deep sense of being loved. They are the glue that holds my extended family together. Quite frankly, I could not imagine my life without them.
I yearn for the day that old age will be revered and cherished as strongly as youth is today. Younger generations are more than deserving of the opportunity to enjoy the presence, wisdom, and support of their elders. As a society, we are at a great loss if we cannot reap the intangible benefits of an active, healthy, and well-connected populace of elderly individuals with a cornucopia of wisdom to share.