New Conversations About Old Age

Courtesy Stanford Medical Center

The dozen panelists seated around the oval conference table at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender had listened to presentations about Social Security reform and orthopedics, among other topics affecting the elderly. But physician Mary K. Goldstein, MS '94, was hitting almost too close to home.

"Well, we actually do die," she said to nervous laughter as she talked about the realities of health care for the aging, including arthritis, drug and disease interactions, stroke, hypertension and memory impairment.

An associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and a specialist in geriatrics and medical decision-making, Goldstein made her sobering presentation in September, during the fourth of six discussions in a series called "Difficult Dialogues: A Stanford Forum on Gender and Ethnicity." Co-sponsored by the Research Institute of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the initiative is bringing experts in economics, medicine, biomechanical engineering, psychology, sociology, political science and demography to campus to look at the topic of this year's Difficult Dialogues--"Aging in the 21st Century"--from the perspectives of their disciplines. In March, the panel will deliver a consensus report to all congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., and to state and local policymakers.

"When we talk about old people, there's very often an omission of the fact that we're talking about women," says Laura Carstensen, a Stanford professor of psychology and specialist on aging who is director of the institute. "It's the invisibility problem, and it has a lot to do with why the elderly are treated the way they are--set aside and not taken seriously."

By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65, Carstensen notes. At age 65, women outnumber men 100 to 83; by age 85, they outnumber men 100 to 39. Women also are far more likely than men to suffer from chronic diseases, live alone and live in poverty in their later years.

"If the elderly were primarily rich white men, we'd have different kinds of conversations," she adds.