UC Berkeley News


Campus to conduct first online conference on aging
Seniors and scholars alike can participate in real time, or view archived presentations later. It's all in preparation for the upcoming 'silver tsunami' of aging Boomers

| 13 February 2008

As America scrambles to meet the retirement needs of 78 million aging Baby Boomers, Berkeley is cyber-surfing ahead of the so-called "silver tsunami" by launching its first-ever online conference to help create aging-friendly communities.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 20, starting at 10 a.m. (PST), more than 1,000 people around the globe will log on to the campus's virtual "Creating Aging-Friendly Communities" conference. The free conference, which will run for three consecutive Wednesdays through March 5, will address myriad aging-related dilemmas, including senior living arrangements, transportation, health care, and Social Security.

Andrew Scharlach

Andrew Scharlach, the Berkeley professor and associate dean of social welfare who organized the conference, says this country "needs to focus on creating communities that accommodate our needs as we grow older, communities where the wisdom of years is valued and applied. America has created Peter Pan environments for people who never grow old, particularly in the suburbs where we're dependent on automobiles and there are long distances to navigate."

Originally limited to 300 participants, conference enrollment has more than tripled due to overwhelming response. Participants span 14 countries and include policymakers, urban planners, and denizens of rural retirement communities. Around the nation, groups will log on at "connected sites" in such locations as Denver; Lake Oswego, Ore.; Westchester County, N.Y.; and the California State University East Bay campus in Concord. Seniors in rural communities will join the conference at libraries and other wired public venues, while at Berkeley, retired faculty and staff will be able to log on to the conference from the campus Retirement Center (located at 1925 Walnut St., near University Avenue).

Conference topics will range from rethinking transportation and housing options for senior citizens as they age to how to create lifelong career and learning opportunities. Speakers will include U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Josefina Carbonell and AARP president-elect Jennie Chin Hansen, who will deliver the welcome address with Scharlach.

In addition to hearing lectures and panel discussions, participants will be able to view images and other graphic presentations, and send questions via a text chat function. Those who miss live events can check out recorded sessions at their own convenience.

Thinking outside the box

Among the conference presenters will be Suzanne Shenfil, human-services director for the city of Fremont and a 1975 graduate of Berkeley's School of Social Welfare. She has launched several initiatives to assist senior citizens in Fremont, Newark, and Union City, including a program called Pathways for Positive Aging, which offers affordable services and opportunities to improve the lives of seniors and their families.

According to a 2005 Baby Boomer survey conducted by her office, 77 percent of respondents said they want to work for social-service or nonprofit agencies and be civically engaged as long as they can.

"Even the frailest of seniors said they wanted to be able to give back to the community," Shenfil says. "As we look at the oncoming wave of older adults, we have to start to think outside the box about how to keep all these people engaged."

Laying the groundwork

The multi-part conference is the brainchild of Scharlach, who got interested in the subject of aging while working at a nursing home. He says he saw too many residents there who instead should have been living at home, but didn't have the support of their families and government infrastructure. He acknowledges that creating aging-friendly communities won't happen overnight, particularly in a society obsessed with youth, but says the groundwork must be laid now - and using the Internet seemed like the most convenient and effective way to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to begin working on these problems.

For many senior citizens, particularly those who don't get around as well as they once did, online networking opens up a whole new world. "I cannot tell you how important this conference is to those of us in rural communities," says Karen Serrett, vice president of Southside Senior Services Inc. in Groveland, near Yosemite National Park. In that small town, she says, 40 percent of the adults are over 40.

That proportion may be atypical of most U.S. communities, but the U.S. Census projects that the number of Americans 65 or older will more than double by 2030, to represent 20 percent of the population. Studies conducted by Berkeley's Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services show that most people would prefer to age at or close to home, rather than move to a retirement home. And this sentiment is echoed off-campus.

"I would like to live at home as long as I can," said Mary Johnson, 77, of Fremont, as she sat with her quilting circle recently at the Fremont Multi-Service Senior Center. Built in 1982 to serve the Tri-City area's growing senior population, including its large immigrant communities, the center is a model of aging-friendliness.

A busy, lakeside venue next to Fremont's Central Park, the center boasts dozens of activities, plus an on-site chef. Activities include tai chi, yoga, bridge, needlecrafts, current-events briefings, language lessons, karaoke, and a band that plays jazz standards. Groups that use the center include the Afghan Elderly Association of Alameda County, Indo-American Seniors, Lavender Seniors, the Chinese Club, the Muslim Support Network, and a Parkinson's support group.

Research indicates that older people who are physically active are biologically younger than their more sedentary peers. This rings true for Johnson, a great-grandmother whose many activities include exercising regularly, eating carefully, and teaching people to read.

"I kind of thought I would be falling apart at this point," said Johnson, a widow. "But I've never been healthier."

Enrolled participants in the upcoming conference can create a profile and begin networking with others in advance at www.conferences.icohere.com/agingfriendly. For six months after the Feb. 20 conference, participants can continue to discuss the issues through an ongoing learning program called "Community of Practice." Visit the conference website (www.icohere.com/agingfriendly) for details.

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