Students discuss aging at Speak Your Mind forum

Thursday, September 27, 2007 | 4:27 p.m. CDT; updated 2:15 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — By 2050, the number of Americans age 65 to 84 will more than double, according to national Census projections, and the number of people 85 and older will almost quadruple. “Our future may hold a society with one worker for every two retired people,” said Richard Hessler, MU professor emeritus of sociology.

And the students at Hickman High School are concerned.

If you go

What: “The Issues Facing Aging America” Speak Your Mind forum. Panelists are Richard Hessler, MU professor emeritus in sociology; Jeanette Jackson-Thompson, operations director of the Missouri Cancer Registry; Sharon Ryan, director of the Center of Economic Education; and Nanette Ward, Columbia Human Rights Commission. When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday Where: Hickman High School commons, 1104 N. Providence Road. Admission: Free.

“The Issues Facing Aging America” is the first of four Speak Your Mind Forums that Hickman will hold this year. This week, a panel of four experts and a sea of students will discuss what Hessler calls a “tidal wave.”

He will be joined by Sharon Ryan of the Center of Economic Education, Jeanette Jackson-Thompson of the Missouri Cancer Registry and Nanette Ward of the Columbia Human Rights Commission. Hickman Social Studies teacher John Deken will facilitate.

The public is welcome to come and listen, but Deken will take questions only from students.

Hessler, who has studied aging, longevity and health care systems for 35 years, said America is on the verge of a demographic revolution. “We’re going to have a whole different society,” he said. “If the largest percentage of the population is older, we’re going to have to switch our priorities.”

Our mind-set will have to shift, he said, from a youth-oriented, get-rid-of-the-wrinkles perception to a focus on older people.

“There’s no way to deny the reality — you can hide your head in the sand, but that’s not easy to do,” Hessler said. “I don’t think young people like to hide.”

The Speak Your Mind Forum began in 1990 and was held at a community room in the Columbia Mall. About 100 students attended the event, which examined music censorship. The forum had a slump in the mid-1990s when it drew about half as many students. There was talk of canceling the forums, but Hickman world religions teacher George Frissell said he knew that “time would come when students would be ready.”

He was right. A forum last year featuring Holocaust survivor Mendel Rosenberg was so large it had to be held in the high school’s auditorium. The aging forum is projected to draw 200-300 students.

Yet Frissell said the forum’s success isn’t determined by the number of attendees. “Success is judged by the quality of discourse,” he said.

The Speak Your Mind Forum differs from classroom curricula in that it gives students the opportunity to hear adults who are experts offer opinions as well as experience civil discourse in the community, he said. “I truly believe civil discourse is the backbone of democracy,” Frissell said.

During Frissell’s class on classical ideas and world religions, students generated more than 20 potential topics including nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, the No Child Left Behind Act and global warming. Surveys were passed out to about 400 sophomores, juniors and seniors. Ageism was the overwhelming first choice.

Frissell was surprised but thinks their choice shows sophistication. “Students will age, too,” he said. “This might be less sensational than the war in Iraq, but it’s very deep.”

This particular forum’s discussion may not be as heated as others. Frissell thinks the evening will be academic, rather than controversial. No one will advocate discriminating against the elderly, he said. Panels that became the most impassioned in Frissell’s memory were the ones about animal rights and gun control.

The next Speak Your Mind forum on Nov. 1 will look at the city’s smoking ban.

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