Sustainable Solutions for an Aging Population

Kathryn Keith, Pierce College


The assignment focuses on the social and economic challenges facing our society as the baby boomer generation ages. Students use holistic and comparative perspectives (from anthropology) and the systems thinking and concept of social justice (from sustainability) to identify issues and challenges, and to evaluate the long-term viability of current approaches and/or proposed solutions for an aging population.

Learning Goals

The sustainability "big ideas" include:

Social justice: All humans have a right to food, work, decent health care, shelter, education, etc.
Systems thinking

The anthropology "big ideas" include:

The use of holistic and comparative perspectives to understand and address real-world issues.

The Learning Goals of the Unit Include:

  • Identify issues for aging individuals, their families, and the society as a whole.
  • Identify common stereotypes and compare them to the reality of elderly peoples' lives.
  • Use a comparative perspective to identify the role of culture in shaping the aging process.
  • Use systems thinking to evaluate our current practices / institutions and possible solutions. What social, economic, and physical resources are involved? How sustainable are the current practices and proposed ideas? What other changes might be required for viable long-term solutions?
  • Use a holistic perspective to consider economic, social, cultural, and other factors.

Context for Use

This teaching-and-learning activity was developed for the "American Mosaic" course, which looks at various dimensions of diversity in American society. This activity goes with a unit on age-based diversity. The purpose is to help students develop an understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of the lifespan, and in particular of the aging process, and to further develop their ability to think long-term and multi-dimensionally as they apply anthropological concepts and approaches to a current issue in American society. This unit could be appropriately adapted for any social science course that deals with the cultural construction of aging.

The unit is taught later in the term so students can draw on previous discussions around class, gender, ethnic, and regional diversity and consider how these factors might intersect with the challenges faced by an aging population. The unit is designed to take about two weeks, but could easily be expanded.

Students will complete several short assignments: a quiz; discussion points; and, portfolio pages demonstrating their developing comprehension.

Students will work in groups to prepare a presentation in which they identity and discuss one major issue (for aging individuals, their families, or society as a whole) related to the increasing size of our retired and elderly population. Each group member will be responsible for writing up and presenting a specific aspect of the issue.

Description and Teaching Materials

Learning Activities

Activity Steps

1) Readings:Students read chapters in their text related to aging, family, and health and beauty. They take short quizzes to demonstrate comprehension. They also engage in several small-group discussions in which they are asked to link concepts back to our major topic on aging as well as to their own experience. Their discussion notes go into their portfolio (a record of ideas in progress, which is collected and graded periodically for depth and completeness).

* The Question Banks for Quizzes for the associated chapters are included in Attachment "A".

2) Life Stages Discussion: In class, we identify, define, and discuss American culture's life stages. I ask students to write in their notes how many life stages there are and what they are called. As a class, we compare our ideas and generate a common list of life stages to use for further discussion. Students then work in small groups to answer a series of questions about each life stage. At the end of class, we come back together and I lead a class discussion about their conclusions. An important point, underlying this discussion, is that the numbers of life stages and how they are defined differ cross-culturally. We are discussing a mainstream American pattern.

* In a previous unit, an assignment required them to sample some TV programs and analyze the kinds of diversity represented (and how), including age-based diversity.

* The Life Stages Discussion Guide is in the Attachment "B".

3) Tsuji Assignment:Students read an article by Tsuji comparing aging in the USA and Japan. The article discusses misconceptions and stereotypes. It links patterns in both cultures to family patterns and to core cultural values. Students complete a worksheet
in which they summarize the article's main points, connect vocabulary and concepts from the text to the article, and identify three points from the article to bring to a small group discussion. This is a homework assignment.

* The worksheet Tsuji Assignment Group Discussion Points is in Attachment "C".

4) Tsuji Small Group Discussion:Students engage in small-group discussion, addressing their discussion points and a couple of specific questions. Their discussion notes go into their portfolio. At the end of class, we identify (as a group) some of the major ideas emerging from their discussions.

* The worksheet Tsuji Assignment Group Discussion Points is in Attachment "C".

5) Observation Assignment: Students test Tsuji's observation about the relative segregation of our aging population by observing how many people of retirement age or greater they interact with or see (in person or in media - the latter linking to an earlier unit on diversity and the media) in a 24-hour period. This is followed by a class discussion in which they compare their results and discuss some of the factors that influence the patterns they see. The observation is a homework assignment; I lead the class discussion.

* The student handout: Observation Assignment is included in the Attachment "D".

6) New Old Age Blog Assignment: Students work in pairs on an assignment focused on the "New Old Age" blog. We did this during class time so I could assist them locating the website and the key features. The assignment could also be done at home, or individually. Our college doesn't have a computer classroom large enough to accommodate an entire class; students had to share computers, so they worked in pairs. For the assignment, they identify key issues of concern for aging individuals, their families, and our society. They note and discuss resources and proposed solutions, long-term viability, and connections with the broader cultural patterns.

* The student handout New Old Age Blog assignment, with the URL link, is included in the Attachment "E".

7) Class Discussion:We compare, as a class, the major issues they identified in their New Old Age research. We select 3-4 major issues of interest for groups to work on in more depth.

* After our discussion, the class divides into groups. These groups will work together for the rest of the unit. Each group will select one of the issues emerging from our class discussion to work on together for the rest of the unit.

8) Small Group Discussions 1: Each group discusses a specific set of questions as they relate to their selected issue. After small-group discussion, students have several minutes to write down any good ideas that came up in the discussion, as well as to reflect on any questions or concerns they may want to think more about. These notes go into their portfolio.

* NOTE: Students will have been introduced to the concept of sustainability (what is it and what does it mean) and holistic / systems thinking earlier in the term. We will have applied those ideas in our discussions of previous units. Before the small group
discussions begin, however, it might be useful to briefly review those big ideas together.

* The Small Group Discussions 1 Assignment is included in the Attachment "F".

9) Small Group Discussions 2:The same groups meet again. For this discussion, students consider the diversity of experiences around this issue in American society as they discuss several specific questions together. After small-group discussion,
students have several minutes to write down any good ideas that came up in the discussion, as well as to reflect on any questions or concerns they may want to think more about. These notes go into their "portfolio" (a record of ideas in progress, which is collected and graded periodically for depth and completeness).

* The Small Group Discussions 2 Assignment is included in the Attachment "G".

10) Class Presentations and Essays: At the end of the second discussion session, or in the following class period, each group will have time to organize for class presentations. In the presentation, each group will identify and discuss current practices and possible solutions, and evaluate their long-term viability, considering the impact of economic, geographical, social, and cultural factors. Each group will have about 20-25 minutes to present their issue to the class. The "audience" should take notes on the presentations, to go into their portfolios.

* Each student in the group will be responsible for discussing a specific aspect of the issue during the group presentation.

* Each student will also turn in a 2-3 page essay discussing their particular focus and explaining how it relates to the larger issue their group addressed.

* The Class Presentations and Essays Instructions are included in the Attachment "H".

I would expect to have some individual discussions with students as they work on their essay assignments, to make sure they are making good progress. I might also ask for an abstract or outline before the essay is due, to ensure that they are approaching the topic with appropriate depth. Alternatively (or in addition), we could have a due date for a first draft and engage in peer review within their groups.

11) Reflection:After all the presentations have been made, students will write an in-class reflection page about the unit as a whole and what they take away from it. As part of their reflection, they will be asked to discuss:
* How has a systems / holistic approach affected your thinking about the aging-related issues our society faces?
* What do you think quality of life means for aging individuals in our society? What changes would we need to make to better provide that quality of life - not just for them, but for all members of our society?

Attachment A (Microsoft Word 116kB Oct24 11)
Attachment B (Microsoft Word 28kB Oct24 11)
Attachment C (Microsoft Word 34kB Oct24 11)
Attachment D (Microsoft Word 25kB Oct24 11)
Attachment E (Microsoft Word 34kB Oct24 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have had the opportunity to teach this unit once; the lesson above reflects changes made based on that experience. For a richer discussion, I would use this toward the end of the term. The first time, it took about a week and a half; I would extend it to at least two full weeks to give students adequate time to develop their ideas. The presentations and essays would be due a week later. A challenge for the instructor will be to focus the class on just a few major issues for in-depth exploration, and to challenge students to consider multiple perspectives in their discussions.

Given the predominantly negative attitudes about aging in our society today, and the impatience that elderly individuals sometimes encounter from younger generations, an extension I'd like to build into it is an elder-empathy kit. Some organizations make such kits commercially, but they come with a workshop presentation and are very expensive. If I can find or make such a kit myself, I'd incorporate it into the early part of the unit. Such kits include items (such as special glasses or gloves) designed to mimic some of the effects of aging on the body. For example, students would put on gloves that limit touch sensitivity and mobility, and then be challenged to pick up small objects or thread a needle.


These include:
  • Online quizzes over the readings to demonstrate comprehension of terms and concepts.
  • Assessment: graded automatically online
  • Tsuji article worksheet.
  • Assessment: see the grading standards below.
  • New Old Age research worksheet.
  • Assessment: see the grading standards below.
  • Portfolio pages documenting the development of ideas through discussion. These will be collected and scored at the end of the unit. During small group discussions, the instructor circulates, monitors, and prompts as necessary.
  • Assessment: see the grading standards below, particularly depth and support.
  • Class presentations and individual student write-ups.
  • Assessment: See the grading standards below. Most important will be how effectively they apply a holistic perspective and systems thinking to their work.
  • Reflective writing on the unit.
  • Assessment: based primarily on completeness and depth.

The general grading standards I use to evaluate student work include:

1. Completeness:
Did you answer every part of the question?
Did you include relevant information?
Did you follow the length guidelines for an adequate level of detail?

2. Accuracy:
Is the information you include accurate?
Is it based on evidence from a reliable source?

3. Support:
Do you include clear and detailed explanations?
Do you include supporting evidence (places, cultures, specific practices, etc.)?
Do you include citations (author & page) for specific information you discuss?
Do you include clear and specific examples?
Do you explain how they are examples (that is, how they fit the definition)?

4. Focus:
Is your answer on topic?
Do you avoid off-topic additions or "bird walks?"
Does your answer directly address the specific question asked?

5. Depth:
Do you use a holistic approach to identify how various factors impact the issue?
Do you explain how different patterns relate to and affect each other?
Do you discuss the importance, significance, or implications of a pattern or idea?
Do you link your examples back to the course materials?

** NOTE: Ways that you can do this include:
- using appropriate vocabulary
- drawing on examples from the readings
- discussing ideas from the readings
- showing how your examples illustrate concepts from the readings

General Standards for the Essays:

"A" work:Superior quality. Interesting and original; you demonstrate a clear, deep understanding of the issues; you present well-supported ideas in a focused and logical fashion. You integrate information and ideas from various course materials, as well as your own experience, to make interesting connections and identify larger patterns. Your work demonstrates an ability to think holistically, systemically, and long-term.

"B" work:Good to very good quality. Strong, well-organized presentation of ideas, good understanding of the issues. You demonstrate understanding of key terms and concepts from readings, films, lecture, etc. You support opinions and ideas with clear explanation and examples.

"C" work:You demonstrate an adequate understanding of the issues. You may need some work on organization or support of ideas. Your comments show that you understand the basic issues raised in the course materials.

"D" work: Needs work. Issues not completely understood, or ideas not clearly explained or supported. Your response may be on the general topic, but does not demonstrate clear understanding of the issues or does not respond directly to the question or to others' ideas.

"F" work:Work is incomplete or does not follow the assignment; shows little understanding of the issues. Your assignment may be incomplete, late, or off topic.

References and Resources


  • Kottak, Conrad and Kathryn Kozaitis (2008) On Being Different (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Chapter 11: "Age and Generation"
Chapter 12: "Bodies, Fitness, and Health"
Chapter 16: "Families"

  • Tsuji, Yohko (2002) "Encounters with the Elderly", pp. 84- 94 in Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture (3rd ed.), ed. P. DeVita and J. Armstrong, Wadsworth.


Supplementary Readings: (some recent articles I brought to students' attention)