Professor James Lubben wonders if the American family is really getting smaller. Maybe, he says, it's just being stretched out over more generations.
"In the old days, you were lucky if you got the chance to meet your grandparents," says Lubben, the Louise McMahon Ahearn Professor of Social Work and director of the Institute on Aging. "Now you can meet your great-grandparents and even great-great-grandparents on some occasions."
Our increased longevity is a miraculous gift, but it also poses some tremendous challenges to the health and social services infrastructure. Lubben and the Institute on Aging hope to transform these challenges into vital opportunities for a new generation of students.
Lubben equates the aging of the world's population to the transformative impact of the Industrial Revolution. As more and more people live into their 90s and even their 100s, not only will they put a strain on existing services—medical care, long-term care, Social Security—but will require the creation of entirely new frameworks.
Older people are healthier, more engaged and eager to maintain an active role in society. Instead of looking to large institutions for health and social services, they're looking for resources within their own communities.
"And quite honestly, who knows the community better than the social worker?" says Lubben. It will be the social worker's job, therefore, to identify the essential services that are lacking in the community, advocate for their creation and figure out how to make them sustainable.
This is no small task, admits Lubben, and one that requires the brainpower and passion of a new generation of social work "pioneers." One of the challenges of the Institute on Aging is to inspire Boston College undergraduates to commit themselves to a career path that doesn't yet exist.
"Right now, if someone looks around for role models or looks around for opportunities, they don't see what's going to be there in 10 or 15 years," says Lubben. "It's very much a visionary who would be attracted to the whole field of aging."
Ultimately, Lubben points out, aging can be viewed as a social justice issue. In the past, only the very rich had the luxury of getting very old. Now, through improvements in nutrition, health care and education, a long life is within everybody's reach.
It's the job of social workers, and the mission of the Institute on Aging, to ensure that the systems and services are in place so that people not only live longer, but live better.