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Ages & Stages


Living a Long Life

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Health; Math; Science.

What You Need: Paper; pencil; ruler. Optional -- library/Internet.

Doing It:

How long can a human being live? Researchers feel the maximum human lifespan is perhaps 120 years. There appears to be a biologically determined lifespan for cells that make up organisms, so that even with the elimination of all diseases, humans couldn't expect to live much past 120 years. The oldest verified human to date is Jeanne Calment, a French woman, who died in 1997 at the age of 122.45 years.

While maximum lifespan doesn't really change, life expectancy does. Lifespan is different from life expectancy. Life expectancy is how many years most of us can reasonably expect to live. Over the course of human history, up until about 1800 or so, life expectancy was low, between 20 and 30 years for most populations, largely because a third to half of newborns typically died before reaching age 5. Even at age 5, however, remaining life expectancy was generally only 30 to 40 years, and for the minority who survived to age 50, remaining life expectancy was probably only 10 to 15 years. In contrast, in most developed countries today, life expectancy at birth is around 75 years for men and 80 years for women.

What factors influence how long a given person will live? In general, environment counts for 20%, and heredity counts for another 20%. Another 10% is medical. The remaining 50% is your lifestyle. So, good health in later life depends on healthy habits developed during youth.

Compare the lifespan of humans to that of other living things. Scientists determine a lifespan figure based on the maximum observed age of a particular living thing. For example, scientists observe animals in zoos and aquariums. These animals often live in conditions almost ideal to living a long life. Animals in the wild face more dangers and, in any case, it's harder to track them.

Here are some living things and their estimated lifespan:

humans -- 120 years
mayfly -- 3 days
honey bee (queen) -- 5 years
ant (worker) -- 6 years
ant (queen) -- 15 years
mouse -- 4 years
squirrel -- 16 years
cat -- 20 years
dog -- 20 years
horse -- 50 years
elephant -- 69 years
chimpanzee -- 40 years
lion -- 30 years
beaver -- 19 years
humpback whale -- 30 years
swan -- 102 years
eagle -- 55 years
canary -- 22 years
hummingbird -- 8 years
parrot -- 80 years
giant tortoise -- 150 years
alligator -- 68 years
cobra -- 28 years
toad -- 36 years
green frog -- 10 years
catfish -- 60 years
carp -- 47 years
oak tree -- 900 years
redwood -- 2200 years
giant sequoia tree -- 3500 years

Make a bar chart to compare the lifespan of different living creatures. Divide the horizontal axis into ten-year increments, from zero up to 150 years (just discuss lifespans greater than 150 years). Along the vertical axis, write in the name of the creature and run a horizontal bar to its maximum age. Include the maximum lifespan of human beings (remember, lifespan is different than life expectancy). What has the longest lifespan? The shortest? How many creatures have a shorter lifespan than humans? How many have a longer lifespan than humans? Are you surprised at any of the lifespans?

Extension: Life expectancy is affected by where you live. Make a bar chart comparing the life expectancy of people in the United States to people in other countries. For example, people in some developing countries have a life expectancy of only 45 years. Use the library or the Internet to collect the data.


Picture This

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, and after an event.

Curriculum Connections: Art; Health; Social Studies.

What You Need: Large sheets of paper; pencil; ruler; markers and/or pencil crayons.

Doing It:

How we perceive older people is based partially on people we know, but largely on images we see in the media. TV shows, movies, billboards, and newspaper and magazine advertisements -- which bombard us all day long, every day -- can strongly influence the images children develop of older people.

Do this activity before a Grandparents Day event, and before your other discussions and activities about grandparents and aging. It will give you a sense of "where children are at." Then, if you like, after you've done activities from this kit and held an event, do this activity again to see whether and how children's images of older people have changed.

Children can draw three different types of comparison pictures:

1. Divide a large sheet of paper into two halves. In one half, draw a picture of a young person, doing something they would normally do. In the other half, draw a picture of an older person, doing something they would normally do. Include as many details and physical attributes as possible. How can you tell a "young" person from an "older" person? How do you know how an older person looks? How do you know what they do? Often, for the older person, children will draw missing body or facial parts (e.g. legs, teeth), distorted body parts, wrinkles, canes, wheelchairs, cigars or pipes, and a sad or mean face. They will also tend to show older adults in passive, inactive situations.

2. Divide a large sheet of paper into quarters (i.e. four equal drawing areas). In each area, draw a picture: in the first area, draw you doing an activity with a toddler; in the second, you doing an activity with a teenager; in the third, you doing an activity with a parent; and in the fourth, you doing an activity with a grandparent or other older person. Compare and discuss the pictures. Where have you gotten your ideas from? Can you do an activity that you do with one person with one of the other people? Why or why not?

3. Divide a large sheet of paper into sixths (i.e. six equal drawing areas). Draw a series of pictures of yourself. Start with a picture of you as a baby. What did you look like? What did you do? Draw a picture of yourself now -- what you look like and what you do. Then draw a picture of yourself as a teenager, a 20-year-old, a 50-year-old, and finally an 80-year-old. How do you think you'll change? Why?

Depends How You Look At It

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Art.

What You Need: Copies of young woman/old woman optical illusion.

Doing It:

There are a great variety and complexity of ways in which images of aging are formed and reflected in different cultures. In classical Greek culture, aging was deemed a horrible misfortune; while among the Samoans, being a healthy old person was the pinnacle of life. Even in our culture, we have different formal and informal ways of looking at age. For example:

  • At age 16 people are "old enough" to be licensed drivers, at age 18 they are "old enough" to vote, and at age 21 they are "old enough" to drink alcohol.

  • Members of the armed forces can retire as early as 37.

  • At age 90, Ludwig Magener won the national swimming championship in six masters' swimming events.

  • Many people who are 75 years old do not think they belong in the "old" age category.

  • Men can join the senior professional golf tour at age 50. The senior tour in men's tennis is for those age 35 and older.

Until the mid-sixteenth century, few people even knew exactly how old they were. People looked at you, looked at what you were able to do, and made a judgment about whether or not you were "old."

Our perceptions are affected by how we feel, our past experiences, opinions, values, and beliefs. We select, organize, and interpret the stimuli we receive through our senses into a meaningful picture of the world around us. Our perceptions of others affect how we relate to them.

Look at the picture of the woman. What do you see? Let everyone share their opinions about what they see and why they believe what they see is correct.

Some people see a woman of about 20 years; some see a woman around 80 years old. Think of the tip of the old woman's nose as the young woman's chin, or vice versa. You can see the old woman in full profile, while the young woman looks as though she's turned away from you in about one-quarter profile. Although the stimulus is the same for everyone, not everyone perceives the picture in the same way. This optical illusion was first published in Puck in 1915.

We all have a little bit of old and a little bit of young in us. And what you see when you look at someone may not be what another person sees. To someone who is 10 years old, a 30-year-old looks "old," while that same 30-year-old looks "young" to a 70-year-old. We have to be aware that our perceptions are not reality, but our view of reality. Perception is like a window. The window is what we look through to get a glimpse of the world. We can't see the whole world through the window because it's too small. We can only see one small portion of the world from one angle. Also, what we can see from our window is not exactly the same as what someone else can see from their window. The outside world isn't different, but our perceptions (our view through our window) may be different. Sometimes we need to try to look through many different windows, or at least talk to people who are looking through other windows, to see the world in as many ways as possible.


Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down Board

Suggested Activity Timing: Any time.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Health; Language Arts.

What You Need: A variety of newspapers and magazines; bulletin board.

Doing It:

There are many images of older people in newspapers and magazines. How many are positive and how many are negative? Collect advertisements, book reviews, movie reviews, and news stories related to aging and older people.

Create a classroom bulletin board. Divide the bulletin board into two halves -- one for "Thumbs Up" indicating a positive view of aging, and the other for "Thumbs Down" indicating a negative view of aging. Before you post an item on the bulletin board, talk about which half of the bulletin board it belongs on and why.

How do you know the people in the ads or articles are "old"? What are the people doing? How are they pictured or described? Which side of the bulletin board fills up faster? What types of images are easier to find? What are the common themes in images? How does this make you feel?


How Old is Old?

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, and then during an event.

Curriculum Connections: Health; Social Studies; Language Arts.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Discuss age and how old "old" is with children before a Grandparents Day. Then, in the presence of grandparents, discuss it again. This is an effective way to explore how complicated the concept of "old" is.

Until the mid-sixteenth century, "age" referred primarily to a stage or period of human life. Since numerical age had virtually no social significance, few people knew exactly how old they were. All people were aware of was that during the course of their lifetime, they passed through several distinct phases of existence. For example, Greek medicine and physiology had created four stages: childhood, youth, maturity, and old age.

Even today, "old" isn't clearly defined. In one study that compared 60 different societies, there were three basic ways of identifying the category of "old": chronology; change of social/economic role; and change in physical characteristics. Technically, old age in North America means the period of life following your 65th birthday. Old age has been defined in chronological terms since the passage of Social Security legislation in the 1930s. But studies have shown that there's no consensus about when "old age" actually begins or even whether it begins at a fixed chronological age. Even among those age 75, many still maintain that they aren't old. A recent survey of baby boomers said that they thought old age begins at 79. Or, as Bernard Baruch once wrote, "Old age is fifteen years older than I am." For many, old age begins with a decline in physical or mental ability, rather than with the arrival of a specific birthday.

In recent years, researchers have divided older adulthood into three general groups: "young-old" (65-74), "old-old" (75-84), and the "oldest-old" (85+). Aside from chronology, the "young-old" are defined as functioning well and having few or no health problems that limit their daily activities. They live comfortably and are actively engaged in their families and communities. They act much like middle-aged people, except they're retired or their work patterns have changed significantly. One researcher estimates that about 80% of those over 65 can be classified as young-old and 20% as old-old. By age 85, nearly 45% might still be considered young-old. Their health is good and they need little or no assistance in preparing meals, shopping, managing money, or doing housework. The rest are old-old: the 25% who find their activities somewhat limited, and the 30% who need substantial help.

If adults have problems with the concept of "old," it's even more difficult for children. They often see mothers and grandmothers as both being "old." Young children may think a mother and grandmother are the same age because they're both the same size.

Start a discussion about age using the concepts of "young, younger, and youngest" and "old, older, and oldest." Look around at or at pictures of familiar things (e.g. books, houses, trees, cars). Order objects by their perceived age. How can you tell something that's "young" (or new) from something that's "old"?

Then read and discuss Something to Remember Me By (see the Something to Remember Me By: Start With Story section in this kit). The story follows the characters through different stages of their life. At first, the granddaughter is a little girl. Then she grows into a teenager. By the end of the story, she is a young woman. At the beginning of the story, the grandmother is an active, involved older adult (young-old). At the point in the story when she moves from her home, she is old-old. By the end of the story, she would fall into the oldest-old category. The story was inspired by my real grandmother, and she actually lived to be 102 years old.

At what age does a person become a teenager? An adult? When do they become middle-aged? When are they old? Why? Is there a difference between "old" and "really old"? What age is someone who is "old"? What age is someone who is "really old"?

A person's age in years really doesn't tell you a lot about how "old" they are. Researchers determine how "old" someone is using three different criteria: 1) Physical (e.g. changes in appearance, senses like sight and hearing, health); 2) Social (e.g. changes in life roles, interaction, income, housing); and 3) Emotional (e.g. adjusting to a changing world, losing family members like a spouse). Who is the oldest person you know? How many years old are they? What, aside from their age, makes them "old"? Do they look "old"? Do they act "old"? Do they say they feel "old"? Have there been changes in their life that make them "old"?

Using the criteria above, read and discuss these books that have oldest-old characters in them: The Chicken Salad Club by Marsha Diane Arnold; Great-Grandmother's Treasure by Ruth Hickcox; Down the Winding Road by Angela Johnson; Maebelle's Suitcase by Tricia Tusa.

After having these various discussions with children before a Grandparents Day event, during the event ask grandparents how they define "old." How many of them think they are "old"? Why or why not? Show grandparents items children have cut out from magazines and newspapers and posted on the class "Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down Board". What do they think? How do they feel when they see the pictures?


Age Line

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Health; Math.

What You Need: Large sheets of paper; marker; calculator.

Doing It:

An "age line" is a very effective, visual representation of age. It can open a discussion about age. Discussing ages during a Grandparents Day helps dispel the idea -- for both young and old -- that it's embarrassing or "wrong" to talk about age. It also helps children understand all the different ages of the people around them.

Start by having each grandchild subtract their age from their grandparent's age to find out how many more years of living grandparents have experienced.

Then everyone lines themselves up from the youngest to the oldest person (you can create a snake in the room). People must talk to each other to figure this out. Try to be specific, with people arranging themselves by birth date if possible.

Starting at one end of the line, each person states their age. When you reach the beginning of each age decade, have that person hold up a large sheet of paper to mark the start of the decade (e.g. twenties, thirties, etc.). Recognize the oldest and the youngest people in the line with applause.

As people are giving their ages, use a calculator to add up the ages. How many years of living do you have in the room?

Are all the children about the same age? Why or why not? Are all the grandparents about the same age? Why or why not?

Look around. How does it feel to be the age you are? Are you self-conscious? Happy? Unhappy? Why?

Have everyone face so that they're looking down one direction of the line. What do the people look like? How do you feel about your place in line? Then switch so that everyone is looking in the other direction of the line. What do people look like? How do you feel about your place in line?

Put the decade markers on the floor. Everyone can then make a new line, this time lining up according to the age they would like to be. How does the line change? Do more people want to be at the front or the end of the line? Why? What does it mean to be a particular age? What do people think they can do at the age they've chosen that they can't do at their real age? Why?


Growing Up, Getting Old

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, and then during an event.

Curriculum Connections: Health; Social Studies; Language Arts.

What You Need: Optional -- Internet.

Doing It:

Why is it that we look forward to "growing up" but not to "getting old"? What's the difference? Is it because "growing up" is associated with gaining more strength, physical attractiveness, and social power, while "getting old" is associated with illness, physical unattractiveness, and less social power? In the survey "Myths & Realities of Aging 2000" by The National Council on the Aging, 42% of respondents 65 or older said these were the best years of their life -- compared with 32% in a 1974 survey. On the other hand, in another study, respondents singled out middle age as the period of most respect (80%) and influence (90%), and youth and old age as the periods of least respect and influence. Some people actually look at "getting old" as a disease. But said Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, "Old age is not a disease -- it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses." Getting old isn't automatically "good" nor is it automatically "bad." It just is. After that, it's up to us.

The topic of aging is one that more and more people are interested in. When planners at the Museum of Science in Boston explored public interest in various topics, they were surprised to find aging as one of the top choices. The result is a $3 million traveling exhibition for all ages called "Secrets of Aging." It explores both the science and the experience of aging. Visit www.secretsofaging.org for information on the exhibit and an interactive, online version (see the listing at the end of this kit for more information).

When does a person begin to age? In fact, we are all aging from the moment we are born. Aging is a lifelong process. Although we tend to think of old age as a separate stage at the end of life, it's really shaped by a lifetime of experiences. Factors like lifestyle, education, occupation, social class and income all influence a person's experience of "getting old." In other words, the last stage of life is the result of all the stages that came before. For example, in one display in the "Secrets of Aging" exhibit, photographs of identical twins who have led very different lives graphically show the difference in appearance caused by lifestyle (e.g. smoking, high exposure to the sun, diet). One woman looks dramatically older and less healthy than her identical twin sister.

Read and discuss some storybooks that take different perspectives on the concepts of growing up and getting old: How Old is Old? by Ann Combs; When I Am Old With You by Angela Johnson; Stranger in the Mirror by Allen Say; Lucky Pennies and Hot Chocolate by Carol Diggory Shields (a fun twist on who the "young" person is).

During a Grandparents Day event, talk about growing up and getting old. Why do children look forward to "growing up"? Why do they think it will be "better" when they are "grown up"? How do grandparents feel about being "grown up"? How do they feel about "getting old"? If they could go back to any age, which age would it be and why? What's the hardest thing about getting older? The best thing?

Extension: Do an interview with a grandparent or other older person using the "Aging" questions from the "Grandparent Interview" activity in the Communication & Storytelling section of this kit.


Everything Changes

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event, or any time.

Curriculum Connections: Science; Health; Social Studies.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Everything changes -- the seasons, weather, plants, friends, fashions, television programs. All of life is change. Some changes are hard; others are easier. How we've learned to handle change in the past affects how we cope with it in the future. A key thing to understand about change is that, in most cases, you lose something but you also gain something. Aging is about changes -- and in some ways you lose things while in other ways you gain. Each age has its assets and its liabilities. Aging is a lifelong process of gradual change.

Talk about the changes that come with increased age. There are a lot of myths and inaccurate information out there. Consider these facts during your discussion:

  • Most of our physical capacities reach their peak when we're teenagers or young adults, and begin a gradual decline after that. The decline is so gradual that we usually hardly notice it until decades later. Regular exercise can have a significant effect on how much we are affected by the changes in our body systems and structures.

  • No matter what age we are, we all have some level of impairment. No one has perfect everything -- vision, hearing, physical agility, and so on.

  • All five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) tend to decline with age. For example, for many, vision acuity can begin to decline as early as age 8, which is why people of all ages wear glasses.

  • Statistics show that older people are often better drivers than younger people. Even though their reflexes and perceptions decline slightly over the years, older people have learned to anticipate potential danger and drive defensively.

  • Height tends to decline with age. There are some decreases in average height after age 55. This decrease appears to be caused mainly by changes in posture (i.e. slumping) and by decreases in the intervertebral discs.

  • While there may be some minor, occasional lapses in memory with age (we all forget where our keys are once in a while), creativity and judgment improve for many people as they grow older.

  • Intelligence doesn't decrease or necessarily increase with age. But its nature can change. A young person may be more adept at a task because of their "fluid" intelligence, while an older person may rely more on their "crystallized" intelligence or their lifetime of experiences.

  • Older adults can learn well, but sometimes not as quickly. Learning ability is better for older adults who are intellectually active and who frequently engage in challenging mental activities.

  • Personality does not change as a result of age. If you're happy when you're young, you'll probably be happy when you're older. If you're easily irritated when you're young, you'll probably be easily irritated when you're older.

  • More people over 65 have chronic (long-term) illnesses that limit their activity (43%) than younger persons (10%). The most common chronic illnesses among older people are arthritis (49%), hypertension (36%), hearing impairment (30%), and heart disease (27%). But, older people have fewer acute (short-term) illnesses than young people.

  • Only about 5% of adults over 65 have an incurable form of dementia such as Alzheimer's Disease. Even among those 80 years and older, only 20-25% have some form of dementia.

  • A small number (1.47 million) and percentage (4.3%) of those 65+ live in nursing homes. The percentage varies with age: only 1% of adults between 65 and 74 live in nursing homes; only 6% of those between 75 and 84; but the proportion rises to 22% among adults 85 or older.

  • Life satisfaction is highest among those who consider themselves "young." Actual chronological age has exactly the opposite relation to well-being. Emotional discomfort declines with age and life satisfaction increases. Older persons report less distress and more happiness and life satisfaction. In one study, just above 20% of people in their 40s said they were very satisfied with their life, while nearly 50% of people in their 70s and 80s said they were very satisfied. So, although "old" is widely viewed as a period when one has little respect and influence, it is also the time when people can feel the happiest and most satisfied with life.

It's important to remember that all changes with age are highly variable depending on the individual. There are a number of factors that determine how a person ages. In general, environment counts for 20%, and heredity counts for another 20%. Another 10% is medical. 50% is your lifestyle (e.g. nutrition; whether or not you smoke; level of exercise; exposure to the sun; even occupation, education, and income). So, good health in later life depends on healthy habits developed during youth. Also, what we lose physically, we can often compensate for in other ways. The human body is like a long-distance runner with its own sense of pace. As the years advance and steal some vitality, there is still plenty of physical capacity left to sustain an active life. It's disease and bad habits that interfere with our quality of life.

Discuss changes and aging in four different age groups: children (birth to age 12); teenagers (13 to 20); younger adults (21-60); older adults (age 61+). What kinds of changes occur in each time period? How do you know? Is a change "good" or "bad"? Why? What do you lose and what do you gain?

To expand the discussion, look at each of the four age groups -- children (birth to age 12); teenagers (13 to 20); younger adults (21-60); older adults (age 61+) -- in terms of the changes a given age group has to adjust to that the other age groups don't usually have to adjust to. For example, a child has to learn to walk, feed themselves, use the toilet, play with other children, begin school, and learn to read and write. No other age group faces these kinds of changes. Teenagers get into dating, peer pressure, going away to school, doing their own laundry, cooking, earning money. Adults have to adjust to marriage and raising a family, developing a career, learning to save money, buying a house, and planning for retirement. Older adults usually have to adjust to retirement, living on a fixed income, moving into a smaller home, the death of friends and spouse, and the birth of grandchildren.


Measure for Measure

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Math; Health.

What You Need: Copies of "Measure It" sheet; pen/pencil; ruler or tape measure; calculator.

Doing It:

The human body changes as people get older. Compare a child's body to an older adult's body.

Grandparent/grandchild pairs can fill in the "Measure It" sheet comparing the child's measurements to the grandparent's. Use the same units of measurement for all the items (i.e. inches or centimeters).

Once you've taken all the measurements, what do you see? Are any of the child's measurements similar to the grandparent's? Which measurement is the most different?

Subtract each of the child's measurements from the grandparent's to find out the differences. Then calculate the percentage difference in a specific measurement by dividing the difference by the child's measurement and multiplying by 100. This tells you by what percentage the grandparent is bigger. For example, if the grandparent is 72 inches (6 feet) tall and the child is 48 inches (4 feet) tall, the difference is 24 inches. 24 inches divided by 48 inches is 0.5, times 100 comes to 50%. The grandparent is 50% taller than the grandchild. How similar are all the differences? How similar are all the percentages? What is the largest percentage difference? The smallest?

In a group of people, add up a specific measurement for all the children and divide by the number of children to get an average (e.g. average height or waist measurement). Add up the same measurement for grandparents and divide by the number of grandparents to get an average. How do the averages compare?


It's Individual

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Health.

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

Aging is inevitable, but it is multifaceted. The rate of physical aging among people varies widely. Biologically there's a great deal of diversity between people and...

From Grandparents Day Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2001 www.somethingtoremembermeby.org