Panelists answer students’ questions about aging

Wednesday, October 3, 2007 | 11:05 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA—Although most Hickman High School students are probably 50 years from retirement, more than 100 students spent Wednesday night discussing social security, 401Ks and Medicare.

At “The Issues Facing Aging America,” the first of four “Speak Your Mind” forums to be held at Hickman this year, four panelists discussed topics such as retirement, age discrimination and health care. Whether attending the forum for extra credit or in a quest for knowledge, the students gathered in Hickman’s common area to learn about a topic unfamiliar to them: aging.

“Ageism is one of those issues that has been swept under the rug,” said Scott McCumber, a Hickman senior and member of the event’s steering committee. “We wanted to hit the ground running with something fresh.”

Hearing the panelists describe the need for additional income besides Social Security after retirement, some students found themselves thinking a little further into the future.

“It makes me a little bit more conscious about saving,” Hickman senior David Wilkerson said.

The panelists came from myriad backgrounds. Richard Hessler is an MU professor emeritus in sociology, Sharon Ryan is the director of MU’s Center of Economic Education, Jeanette Jackson-Thompson is operations director of the Missouri Cancer Registry and Nanette Ward is a human rights investigator and community educator for Columbia.

Each panelist had about 15 minutes to present. While Hessler and Ryan focused on statistics — by 2038, the social security system will be bankrupt, Ryan said — Jackson-Thompson told the story of her 67-year-old husband’s hospitalization for pneumonia and related illnesses.

She said she was astounded by the way some health care professionals disregard the wishes of older patients, including her husband. Even though he is claustrophobic, her husband was put into an oxygen mask instead of a nasal cannula, she said.

The student-run steering committee was in charge of choosing and contacting panelists for Wednesday’s forum. Jackson-Thompson was contacted after a Google search retrieved her paper, “You Can Dress Yourself, Walk Down the Hall and Climb Half a Flight of Stairs — You Don’t Need Rehab,” about the impact of ageism on patients and families.

Hessler has studied aging, longevity and health care systems for 35 years and spent time in Sweden researching the way human beings age. Ryan specializes in labor economics and lectures about an aging workforce. Ward, who works with the city’s Human Rights Commission, works to make people aware of age discrimination.

George Frissell, Hickman’s world religions teacher and steering committee supervisor, said the forum was a success even though students only had time to ask six questions.

“Sometimes students pick a topic where they just want to be informed,” he said.

The first Speak Your Mind forum, held in 1990 in a community room at the Columbia Mall, examined music censorship. Since then, topics have included stem cells and the Holocaust. All topics are determined by a student vote, in which sophomores, juniors and seniors choose from a list more than 20 topics long.

The top two choices, ageism and the city’s smoking ban, were selected as the topics for the first two forums this year. The smoking ban will be discussed Nov. 1. Topics for the other two forums will be decided at the start of the second semester.

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