Hollywood's current fascination with teendom, coupled with the popularity of teen-oriented television shows and musicians, might give today's extraterrestrial anthropologists--at least the ones who scan the dials--the impression that we are a civilization dominated by adolescents.
But if that same alien researcher would do a little digging, he or she would find there is a segment of the population growing at an even larger rate than sales of the latest Backstreet Boys CD.
That segment is people over the age of 65, who, in a few years, will comprise a fifth of the U.S. population. In comparison, at the turn of the century the average American lifespan was 47 years and only 4 percent of the population was over 65.
Linda Fried, deputy director for Clinical Epidemiology and Health Services Research in the Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, and director of the Center on Aging and Health, says senior citizens constitute the country's only increasing natural resource--and also its most untapped.
After retirement, many older adults don't see many options for themselves and all their free time, Fried says.
"That's because we as a nation have not figured out what the roles are for people in their retirement years," Fried says.
The result of not utilizing this resource, says Fried, has health implications for these same senior citizens.
"Increasingly, research is showing that people become socially isolated post-retirement as they lose the opportunities to really make a contribution, and that the isolation and decreased activity actually affect their health status," Fried says. "These factors also contribute to feeling depressed because they no longer feel productive. Feeling like a valued human being is important no matter what your age."
Fried has one solution to fill the post-retirement void.
In 1995, she, along with Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures Inc., designed the Experience Corps program, an endeavor that would promote the health and well-being of older adults by creating meaningful roles post-retirement, helping to address unmet social needs. The focus of the program is on improving academic outcomes for elementary school children.
The program places adults 60 years and older in public schools, where they participate in the literacy development of children in kindergarten through third grade. Fried says there is substantial evidence that if children are not reading by third grade they are "poised for long-term problems in terms of schooling."
Experience Corps has gone through successful two-year pilot demonstrations in nine U.S. cities--and now it's coming to Baltimore.
The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the Greater Homewood Community Corporation are about to launch the first stage of a randomized controlled trial of Experience Corps in three public elementary schools in northern Baltimore: the Abbotston School, the Guilford School and the Dallas Nicholas School.
The Baltimore version of the Experience Corps program will place 30 older adults in each school, where they will be trained to perform support roles for literacy development, such as helping to run school libraries and library reading programs, in addition to helping children develop behavioral skills.
"This is for both violence prevention and also so that [the children] have skills to play in nonconflictual ways and to learn cooperatively," says Fried, who has joint appointments in the schools of Medicine and Public Health.
The adults, serving in teams of seven to 10, will work with both individual children and groups during a 15-hour work week. Those participating in the program will receive $150 per month for out-of-pocket expenses.
The program is intended to give extra attention to children who are in danger of falling behind, Fried says, on a large enough scale that outcomes for the school as a whole are improved.
"The adults will take a small group aside that is seen as needing additional assistance in learning. They are not displacing the teachers, but are acting as highly trained volunteers," Fried says. "It frees the teacher to teach more effectively with the rest of the class."
The beauty of the program, according to Fried, is that it is designed to help both the children and the adults.
"The goal here really is, in part, to try to develop a model for what older adults can contribute in the education process and, from a Greater Homewood point of view, to put all the community's resources together to support the success of the schools," Fried says. "It is designed to be a win-win situation. These young kids are very needy of having relationships with older adults, and in turn it's been very positive for these older adults to have roles they see as highly productive. When older adults first heard about the program they were very responsive because they identified a program in which they truly could make a difference. They did not want a job licking stamps in some corner; they were concerned about actually using their skills."
The program is being funded by the state of Maryland, the state Department of Education, Baltimore City public schools, the Baltimore City Commission on Aging and Retirement Education and the Johns Hopkins Prevention Center. The state recently agreed to contribute $250,000 for the Experience Corps project.
Hopkins has played an integral role in the development of the Experience Corps program, says Fried, as faculty and researchers in the School of Medicine, the School of Public Health and the Center for Social Organization of Schools have all contributed their expertise.
"This program is really a melding of geriatrics and public health, as well as expertise in childhood education and senior service," Fried says. "Being at Hopkins provides the wonderful opportunity to work with colleagues from a number of fields, who have been working together for over two years to design a randomized trial that would take this work to the next stage and help evaluate its importance. We have geriatricians, cognitive experts, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, health care economists and several people who have extensive expertise in designing school-based programs. It really is a great team."
The program officially begins in mid-October, and Fried says the hope is to continue the trial for three years in the three schools. The vision beyond that is to expand the program statewide or nationally to include 60 schools and 3,000 older adults for a "definitive evaluation of the impacts of the program."
"It's when you take it to a large scale that you can really demonstrate the costs and benefits and begin to look at what it would take to institutionalize these new kinds of roles and programs, whether it be statewide or national," Fried says. "This isn't the only way that older adults can serve, but it's one model in hopefully what is going to become an expanding spectrum of roles for older adults and a community-based model for health promotion for older adults."
Experience Corps is currently recruiting volunteers to participate in the program; those interested can call 410-502-5496. Individuals not selected will be asked to contribute by participating as a comparison group in a half-day evaluation of their health and well-being at the end of the school year. Three other public elementary schools have been chosen randomly to serve as a comparison group for this study.