Technology has recently taken a beating. Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify this week about Facebook’s privacy practices — concerns that have sent the stock reeling. Our reliance on instantaneous communication and impersonal devices has been blamed for epidemic increases in mental health problems among young people. But there’s one area where technology is being viewed as a breakthrough: the advances it will bring to the fast growing elderly population. It’s been a busy week, so I’m just now getting around to debriefing on the What’s Next Boomer Summit I attended last month in San Francisco. In its 15th year, it’s the brainchild of Mary Furlong, an entrepreneur considered the “godmother” to those who are developing products aimed at improving the quality of life for older Americans. At this most recent gathering, I got a view of a variety of promising innovations. Apps have been developed for areas where they’re most desperately needed, like protecting the financial assets of the elderly. As AARP finds the majority of older Americans seek to remain in their homes as they age, there are a plethora of interactive technologies underway to help them. Robotics is ushering in an era that will allow not just supervision for older people, but socialization. As we take stock of the negative repercussions of technology, it’s uplifting to see the positive role it could ultimately play in improving the quality of life of aging Americans, who will soon comprise the majority; nearly one in five U.S. residents will be age 65 or older by 2030. Along those lines of living a fulfilling life, I write articles for The Wall Street Journal focused on those who switch to interesting new careers after 50. I’m always on the hunt for the next round of inspirational stories, so please contact me if you or someone you know would like to be featured.
When the Atlantic’s education editor asked me to pursue an article focused on private vs. public education systems, I didn’t hesitate. The assignment was intriguing. The Atlantic was launching a series called, “Moonshots,” where editors posted hypothetical questions that journalists would investigate. My article must answer the questions: What if all students were required to attend public school? And the contrary: What if all students were required to attend private school? The idea was to facilitate a conversation that would lead to insights on what makes for the best educational experience. I spent much of August researching the issue, speaking with leading educational experts, those working for both liberal and conservative think tanks, teachers, parents and students. The result was this article.
As the child of a public school teacher — my mother taught high school English in the Detroit Public Schools for 35 years — and as the sister of a middle school language arts public school teacher, I admit that I had some preconceived assumptions about private schools: that they catered to elite, affluent, mostly white students. But in the course of speaking to those on every part of the education spectrum, I learned that private schools are often more diverse than their surrounding public schools. Wealthy school districts are usually equated with pricey real estate that only the affluent can afford. This means that these districts are often have far less socioeconomic diversity than in private schools, where the school has the ability to ensure a diverse population of students. That’s not to say that private schools are perfect. Administrators can be far more selective and potentially discriminatory; they may not take in those with disabilities or other special needs. Large public schools turn away no one. And they’re often are able to offer a vastly more comprehensive curriculum, as well as a plethora of extracurricular activities.
What I took away from this fascinating exploration of our education institutions is that, in pitting private schools and charter “schools of choice” against public schools, we haven’t taken the time to focus on what each has to offer to students. Each system has its drawbacks. But if we would consider more the strengths of each type of learning environment, we could learn a lot about how to improve today’s systems — ultimately creating a far stronger educational system for our students.
When deciding what articles to pursue, I often look to compelling statistics to find the story. And the following statistics shocked me. In 2010, there were 1,182 deaths by suicide among those ages 15 to 18; that number jumped to 1,458 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two years ago, a CDC survey found that nearly 18 percent of high school students had seriously considered suicide in the previous twelve months. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people and it’s hit the area where I live hard. During the past academic year, our small community lost three young people to suicide. It would be easier to feel the sorrow and not probe this sensitive topic. It would be easier not to pester the grieving parents and have to ask them to relive the memories of their loved one. In other words, it would be easier to shy away from covering suicides. But avoiding the topic altogether has not proven helpful. Research shows that writing about teen suicide does not encourage more teens to take their lives. In fact, the data argues that awareness of the problem can lead to solutions and outreach and providing the help that our young people so desperately need. So I wrote my third article on the topic, this time for The Ann Arbor Observer. (I previously wrote an article for Good Housekeeping and another for The Michigan Alumnus. ) I’m grateful that the Roberts family understands the importance of spreading awareness on teen suicide and so bravely sat down with me to reminisce about their precious son. The reaction from the community to the piece has been extremely positive. Those who have been hit hard by suicides of young people all seem to realize that discussing this — not sweeping it under the rug as if it never happened — is key in addressing this epidemic. I hope there will be inroads and that I won’t have to write about this painful subject any time soon. But if there is another tragedy, I will not hesitate to confront the topic again. It’s something that any responsible member of the media should do.
As someone who works from home, I often long for a distraction. And my go-to source is Facebook. I strive to employ discipline by not allowing myself a peek of my social media feed unless I’ve put in a certain amount of hours or written the top of a complicated story or finished several interviews. Since I have limited in person interaction with other humans during the day, it’s my social reward for getting through a particularly challenging stint of assignments. I don’t post frequently (though my family members would beg to differ.) Instead, I enjoy peering into the lives of my friends and family. As a journalist, I’m most comfortable in the role of observer. Now that it’s summer, I find myself scrolling through endless streams of vacation pics. As I sit at my desk, I mentally photo shop myself into the many beach scenes, wishing I was there. This got me thinking about what I call the “vacation poster,” those who are only heard from on Facebook while on vacation. Whether it’s a beach in Northern Michigan, a nature hike in the mountains or a more exotic trip to Europe, there’s no end to these photos. Silent the rest of the year, the vacation posters are eager to share their happy memories while those memories are being made. Some post daily as if to say repeatedly, “look at the wonderful vacation I’m having!” With much time and thought given to the daily postings, I wonder how much they’re able to experience that vacation in the moment. I have found myself guilty of this as well, especially with my children. I have been so preoccupied with capturing the scene in a photo and envisioning the wonderful Facebook post that will ensue that I missed the chance to embrace the experience as it was unfolding. To be sure, many of those who post are truly eager to share their vacation photos and their enthusiasm for their summer getaway with dear friends and family and Facebook is the most convenient venue to do so widely. But I also wonder if there’s a deeper psychological reason: an interest in conveying to the public, in typical social media style, that life is good, even if it always isn’t. The positive comments that invariably follow: “The family adventure looks amazing!” “What a terrific trip!” “You look beautiful!” are validating. A vacation isn’t truly great unless those who see the photos say it is. I’m sure there are plenty of people who head on vacation and don’t give Facebook a second thought. They may be more interested in enjoying the time in a fresh destination than having others reflect on it. Do they ultimately enjoy their vacation more than those consumed with posting about it? Of course, it’s impossible to know. My husband and I are heading to Paris in the fall to visit my daughter who will be studying there. It’s the first time we’ve been to Europe since before our children were born and I’m very excited. But I’m going to try very hard not to envision each photo as an opportunity for a Facebook post — even thought that’s tempting. I’ll find out if my travel abroad is more positive when it’s not viewed through the lens of social media. A future blog will reveal the impact of this social media restraint! Happy travels to all of you this summer.
Our former minivan, above, jam packed for its last college venture.
After donating my 14-year-old minivan last month, I found myself becoming overwhelmed with emotion. The depth of my reaction surprised me and I decided to explore my feelings and the reason for them in an essay. I don’t often have the time amidst my many freelancing assignments to write personal essays. And I’ve had limited success with the few I’ve tried to sell. So after writing it, I showed it to my husband. He’s become my go-to person to bounce ideas off of over the many years we’ve been married. He always has good instincts about how a piece might be received and he’s been incredibly supportive of my writing. He often weighs in with valuable advice on how to improve my articles. But this time, his response and candor surprised me. “It’s so cheesy and cliche,” he said. “I don’t think you should try to sell it.” I shed tears while writing this piece and the subject moved me. I thought other moms my age would be able to identify with it. I wasn’t yet ready to accept his answer, so I had a close friend read it. “I’m sitting here in tears,” she said after reading it. Not comfortable accepting just her answer, I sent it to my sister, who is brutally honest. “I loved it,” she said. Buoyed by their remarks, I sent it to a few publications. I bet my husband that others would feel the same and that I would get it published. Within a few days, Real Simple accepted the article. After I posted it on Facebook, comments began streaming in, with numerous people sharing their stories of their attachment to their very old cars. It seemed I was not the only person who grew to love their vehicle and was reluctant to let it go. Jubilant that I had won the bet (unfortunately we never solidified any terms, so satisfaction was my only reward,) I told my husband that it didn’t matter so much to me that he didn’t like the piece, since he was not my target audience. This would resonate mostly with women, especially those with older children. And, indeed, almost all of those who responded favorably to my Facebook post were female. Other women were the ones who grew sentimental over the vehicle as I did. I find this division along gender lines interesting. Is it because more women tend to drive their kids around in the family vehicle, therefore cementing more memories behind the wheel? Why would men not feel the same? Or would they just be more ashamed to admit getting weepy at the prospect of parting with the family van? I don’t know the answers. But as I pitch stories, I always consider the audience of the publication I’m targeting to run my piece. As a freelancer, you want to make sure your stories — especially personal essays — land in the hands of those who can most identify with the subject of your article. It’s a key way to market your pieces and increase your chances of selling them. I knew a magazine with mostly female readers would be the right target for this essay. I’m glad my instincts were right.
Every day for the next twenty years, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. No matter how many times I hear or see that number, it’s hard to wrap my head around it. With 75 million baby boomers in our country today — defined as those born between the ages of 1946 and 1964 — a huge swath of our population is going through the aging process. And with that comes an unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurs. I just attended the 2017 What’s Next Boomer Business Summit in Chicago, an annual gathering of entrepreneurs focused on the aging industry. The Summit is organized by Mary Furlong, an entrepreneur who is viewed as a mentor and godmother to aging-related start-up founders. According to AARP, the longevity market, as it’s called, accounts for $7.6 billion in economic activity. Realizing the gold mine of story ideas that can be found in this burgeoning aging beat, I’ve been attending the Boomer Summit for the past few years. Each year, the number of attendees has grown exponentially; there’s clearly an appetite for businesses related to aging. There are so many problems to be solved and innovators springing up to solve them.
What’s always been remarkable to me is the personal experiences that motivate positive change. Whether it’s someone who launched a ride service for seniors after his mother became isolated and housebound or a service to cook meals for seniors that took root after a founder’s grandmother could no longer prepare her own healthy meals, the businesses are often born out of a commitment to solving vexing problems related to aging. I’m not naive enough to believe these entrepreneurs aren’t also after profit, but at least the businesses seem to be founded on the principle of helping a vulnerable part of the population. I’ve latched on to this area as a journalist because it’s so clear that there are fascinating innovations happening in this space every day. And it’s not just in the traditional fields of health care. Technology developments have been a huge force. According to Aging in Place Technology Watch, there’s plenty of opportunity in this sector: the marketplace for technology to assist the many adults wanting to age in place is expected to grow from $2 billion currently to more than $30-billion over the next few years.
Jody Holtzman, AARP’s senior vice president of market innovation, speaking at the Boomer Summit said, “Addressing the needs of over 100 million people is called an opportunity.” I’ve written several articles about the plethora of new businesses being established to serve the crucial needs of Americans as they age, including this one and this one, both for CNBC. I look forward to continuing to track these extremely newsworthy developments over the next few years, as even more boomers (myself included!) continue to age.
Each December, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, my husband and I make a traditional trek to the movie theater, often several times. My goal is to see all the movies likely to be nominated for Academy Awards and the strongest contenders often are released during this time. Among the movies we saw this year was “La La Land,” an old fashioned love story and beautifully executed homage to old Hollywood starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. As someone who grew up in a family of devoted fans of classic movies — especially musicals — I found emotions rushing through me as I recalled those who have since passed away while I watched the film. The first person was my father, who died five years and would have so delighted in seeing this film. He and my mother shared a passion for movies that they passed on to my siblings and me. Their coffee table was adorned with a giant book about old Hollywood, with photos of significant movies of the century. As a young girl, I spent many hours thumbing through the pages, riveted by the photos of the glamorous movie stars. The second was my Aunt Anita, my father’s sister, a walking treasure trove of movie trivia. Just name a movie from any era and she could easily recite the main characters, plot and memorable lines. This talent was second only to her ability to identify the filling in the center of individual chocolates in a box of candy. My aunt so worshiped the movies that for one of her birthdays, my parents gave her the ultimate present: tickets to the Academy Awards. They relied on my mother’s brother, then an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, who passed away two-and-a-half years ago. He went to great lengths to secure the tickets for her, pulling every string he could. It’s no understatement to say that this experience was one of the highlights of her life. This feisty, 4 foot 10, woman traveled from her home in the suburbs of Detroit to Los Angeles, purchased a beautiful gown and ogled the stars as they walked down the Red Carpet. It was a dream that she could never have imagined coming true. My family members grew up cherishing the movies because, as storytellers themselves, they appreciated a well developed narrative. And musicals in particular provided an escape that allowed them — if even momentarily — to dream. I inherited that passion, so much that I performed in numerous amateur musicals, from high school through adulthood. And when I’m watching a great musical, I feel the presence of my father and aunt, infusing my spirit with optimism, amidst my sadness in missing them. “La La Land” was a temporary antidote to the pervasive skepticism I’ve felt these past few months. We see the optimistic spirit of two characters who pursue their dreams and succeed, despite all the obstacles in their way. My own adult children haven’t inherited my love for musicals, so I didn’t succeed in getting them to join me in seeing “La La Land”on our vacation together. They’re all nervous about what’s to come in the world. Even so, I see an optimistic spirit similar to that possessed by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters. My children, too, dream of a happy future. They don’t hesitate to take risks to pursue their passions, even knowing things may not always go their way. In my mind, the lyrics of a song that Emma Stone sings in the song, “Audition,” towards the end of the movie was a tribute to them, and to my deceased father and aunt:
Here’s to the ones who dream; foolish as they may seem; here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make.
Here’s to a new year filled with optimism and the hope that we never stop dreaming.