Click photos to meet intriguing older adults and experience their stories

We’re putting the newsroom online. For the next two months, Columbia University’s News21 team is traveling the country reporting on aging America. Massive demographic shifts over the next 40 years will transform everything from family life and health care to employment and housing. We’re calling our project Brave Old World: Our Future Selves.

If you have a question, click here to ask us. You can check out last year's project Brave Old World: Aging America

02 September 2011

Why I Work: Raymond Raskin

Dr. Raymond Raskin is an psychoanalyst on New York City’s Upper East Side. I sat down with Dr. Raskin in June to talk about his work. Listen to the audio clip above. And here’s a (lightly edited) excerpt from the interview:

BOW: How is your job different at age 89?

RR: There’s no point in sending me a patient for analysis. What I get now are people like me, even younger than me, who have to deal with the aging process, which is no fun. Aging ain’t for sissies.

BOW: What do your patients think?

RR: They’re all scared that I’m going to drop dead tomorrow. And when I broke my arm, half of them went into mourning, you know, “Oh my God, my analyst, he’s out of it!” When I wasn’t, I wasn’t at all. I was back working in a couple of days.

They worry a lot about my age. I don’t. What the hell’s the point? I’m here as long as I’m here and that’s it.

Dr. Raymond Raskin

18 August 2011

Our Future Selves Code: Sample 1

Last Emily and I wrote we were dealing with this some of these datasets from the census projecting the U.S. population out to 2050. Weeks later, six datasets crunched, numerous excel fields concatenated, and 3525 lines of code later, our interactive went up on the Washington Post. For all of the ActionScript 3 and Flash fans out there, we thought we’d share some of our code.

One of the elements we made was a line graph that animates to different values when you pick different inputs. We wanted to show disease prevalence over a lifetime for different demographic groups. So, you select hispanic women you get one graph, you select hispanic men and the graph moves to show that value. 

Here’s an example of how the line works:

Here’s how it works.

The dots are the important parts and the lines are created between them. The dots are placed through a for loop, cycling through different data points within an array. The lines are drawn between each of the dots. The buttons at the bottom change the array values and call on a function to tween the dots. 

The lines are redrawn at each frame as the dots are tweening. The key is the line:

line_move.graphics.clear(); 

One tricky thing is flash is removing elements once you have added them to the stage. So without this piece of code clearing the line each frame, you will get multiple lines as the tween is happening. This keeps it to just one line.

Here’s an annotated FLA (CS3) to download:

http://bit.ly/oB89qW

29 July 2011

Today is the last day of News21 so, naturally, we got a pinata shaped like the Cookie Monster. Above, a day in the life of a doomed party centerpiece, until Farhod delivers the fatal blow and below, our world-class, fearless leader Paula takes out her aggression — caused by countless misplaced commas and run-on sentences — on our blue, gluttonous friend.

We had a lot of fun this summer and worked extremely hard (pinata party excluded). Check back in this space soon for the launch of Our Future Selves.

18 July 2011

John and June Cannon have been married 57 years. John is now in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease and days, weeks go by without him uttering a word. He doesn’t notice you when you walk by and most of the time, his eyes stare blankly into space. To me, He seemed completely absent. In June’s eyes though, he is still the husband she knows, the man she has spent her whole life with.

15 July 2011

There’s a place on the north side of Chicago, sidling up against Lake Michigan, called Lincoln Park Village. It sounds like a nice place. People offer each other rides to the doctor’s office and the grocery story, and everyone knows the handyman, who’ll fix your sink. Need a hand with yard work? You just have to ask.

Except Lincoln Park Village isn’t a place. It’s a collective, a non-profit organization that opened in 2009 that members pay an annual fee to join. In return, they have access to the kinds of services that older people need if they want to age in place.

I didn’t get to visit – Niharika, Farhod and Tamir made the trip instead. Instead I got an email with an Excel file of all the village members and instructions to tell a story about the ties that bind the community together.

Enter Fusion Tables by Google.

It’s kind of like magic, a dead simple way to build the kind of map that you see above in 10 minutes or less. You just upload an Excel file and click Visualize Map. One of the biggest problems that journo-hackers used to face was how to plot real world things on a latitude-longitude based map. With Fusion Tables, that conversion is automatic and you can spend your time looking at the stories in the data.

Here, our story is to show how the members of Lincoln Park Village are neighbors, even when they don’t all live in the same neighborhood. How close to members live to each other? What kinds of services are most popular? Which members are doing things together?

Eventually, we’ll build our own map that you can click around, watch videos, and see all the stories we find. For now though, we get to spend the time finding the stories, not plotting 170-odd dots one-by-one.

12 July 2011

Shining Other People’s Shoes

This is Bennett Willis, who worked at Dow Chemical in Freeport, TX, for 33 years. He’s 69 years old, putting him squarely in just outside the Baby Boomer generation, who, like him, have retired recently or will be retiring soon.

It’s a nationwide problem: longstanding companies like Dow are losing massive amounts of their workforce to retirement as the population ages. Filling the void isn’t easy; it’s not like a company can just hire a bunch of graduates to replace them and continue on unfettered. When people like Bennett Willis leave, everything they know goes with them (and in the engineering field, that includes experience with specific processes or machinery that no one else has). Measuring the value of institutional knowledge isn’t easy, but it’s not hard to do the math when comparing someone with 33 years of experience and someone with two.

One of our main areas of interest is what happens to the workplace when the population ages. What can be lost and how can we save it? In the case of Dow, a massive amount of its Freeport operations (seen, from its security-laden perimeter, in the above video’s still photos) are nearing retirement age. And in Texas as a whole, fewer college students are entering fields like engineering, or blue-collar and manufacturing work in general. So at a nearby community college, industry retirees like Willis teach new hires at companies like Dow what they know, in hopes of transferring the knowledge leaving the industry to the newbies entering it.

As Willis points out, there’s a lot hanging in the balance.

11 July 2011

Weaving a good story takes a lot of planning, and sometimes the best way to do that is by moving around lots of little pieces of paper …Here Dewi and Jason plan out the structure of their DIY senior housing story by making a sort of visual outline using notecards and pieces of paper with quotes from their sources.
The community featured in this story popped up on this blog once before, in a short video about a blindfolded gold cart race. Check it out, it’s pretty great.

Weaving a good story takes a lot of planning, and sometimes the best way to do that is by moving around lots of little pieces of paper …

Here Dewi and Jason plan out the structure of their DIY senior housing story by making a sort of visual outline using notecards and pieces of paper with quotes from their sources.

The community featured in this story popped up on this blog once before, in a short video about a blindfolded gold cart race. Check it out, it’s pretty great.

10 July 2011

Eleanor and Nick are going to Hawaii

Eleanor, 91, has been suffering from front lobe dementia for four months. Nick and I have spent time with her and her daughter several times over the course of the last month as she moved from one assisted living facility to another specializing in dementia care.

The way dementia works through one’s brain is astonishing. Eleanor alternates between moments of total confusion and glimpses of her past wittiness. This is one of them.

And this is how it all started: