Tag Archives: environmental sustainability

Reprinted with permission from Cornell Chronicle, April 1, 2011



Cornell researchers are calling on their colleagues around the world to focus on how aging global populations will intersect with climate change and calls for environmental sustainability.

In the article published in April's Journal of Aging and Health, professor of human development Karl Pillemer and four Cornell colleagues argue that environmental threats disproportionally affect the health of the aging.

"These risks are likely to increase as the effects of climate change are felt," the authors write. "The older population is at greater risk for adverse health effects from extreme temperatures, susceptibility to disease, stresses on the food and water supply, and reduced ability to mobilize quickly."

In addition to being affected by climate change, aging populations also might shape environmental change.

Older people now drive more than use mass transit less than they used to; take more medications, which need to be disposed of safely; and as they age and restructure their living arrangements, their residential energy efficiency changes and their independent and assisted living facilities are often built in environmentally sensitive areas, write the authors.

Older people may provide solutions to environmental problems, the researchers state, through their involvement in environmental volunteerism.

As our population ages, "studying the connections between environmental sustainability and aging is potentially of great importance," say the researchers, who propose a research agenda to examine the intersection of aging and environmental sustainability.

However, they add, older persons may also provide solutions to environmental problems through their becoming involved environmental volunteerism.

Few scientific studies, however, have focused on how aging and environmental sustainability intersect. The article offers various recommended topics for future research, including environmental threats to the health of older people, pro-environmental behavior and volunteerism in later life, and environmental impact of housing and living arrangements.

The article stems from the 2009 Cornell Conference on Aging and the Environment, co-sponsored by what is now called the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future as part of its 2008 Academic Venture Fund program. The conference included experts from across Cornell, partner and peer organizations, national experts, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the format encouraged the development of a research agenda through a "consensus workshop" model, designed by Pillemer.

Co-authors of the new article include Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis; Rhoda Meador, associate director of extension and outreach, College of Human Ecology, and of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center; Jennifer Parise, graduate student, human development; and Linda Wagenet, former senior extension associate in development sociology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; all at Cornell.


QuoteOlder adults are likely at greater risk from climate change. Recognizing the urgency of this unstudied problem, researchers in the College of Human Ecology brought together experts in the both the social and natural sciences to begin to make recommendations.

When Hurricane Katrina engulfed New Orleans in 2005, catastrophic flood waters and fierce winds crippled the city’s infrastructure, caused billions in property damage, and killed an estimated 1,500 Louisiana residents. The death toll cut across all races, but one characteristic stood out among the storm’s victims: nearly three-quarters of the dead were aged 60 and older, with 50 percent of the victims aged 75 and older.

The stark difference in survival rates between young and old illustrates what scientists believe to be a greater vulnerability among seniors to environmental calamities like Katrina, where the elderly—many physically frail and with limited mobility—could not evacuate coastal areas ahead of the hurricane’s onslaught. Older adults also figure to have the most trouble coping with the predicted negative consequences of climate change, such as the accelerated spread of human diseases, declines in air and water quality, energy shortages, rising temperatures, food supply volatility, and loss of suitable habitats. Read the full story

Karl Pillemer

Linda Wagenet

Updated 2/10/09

Karl Pillemer and Linda P. Wagenet are leading a program to better understand and support engagement of older persons in issues of environmental sustainability and conservation. The Cornell Program on Aging and the Environment (CPAE) is based on the idea that the older population can constitute a special resource for environmental action in the form of volunteerism and civic engagement.

Unique opportunities are provided by the intersection of three major social trends: the enormous growth in the older population; the need for opportunities for meaningful involvement on the part of older people (including the Baby Boom generation now reaching retirement); and the critical need for volunteers to play a role in remedying pressing environmental problems.

Pillemer and Wagenet have written a review and “call to action” on this topic, published in the Public Policy and Aging Report. They note that awareness has increased about the rapidly growing older population, which is expected to double worldwide between 2000 and 2025. Environmental organizations, however, have not shown significant interest in maximizing the involvement of older adults, nor have many aging-related associations been involved in promoting environmental volunteerism. Pillemer and Wagenet argue in their article that environmental volunteering may have particular value for older persons beyond the types of volunteer activity more conventionally performed in later life. They conclude that research, practice, and policy should work in concert to facilitate volunteering and civic engagement in environmental issues in the second half of life.

To put some of these ideas into practice, a pilot project was launched in September, 2008 called the Retiree Environmental Stewards Project (RESP). The RESP provided an opportunity for older adults to learn about environmental issues, develop leadership characteristics, participate in a class project and give back to the community. An evaluation research component accompanied the training, which was open to anyone age 60 and above. The Fall 2008 RESP cohort had seventeen participants, and the class has chosen to develop an educational campaign about the proper disposal of unused medications.

Topics addressed in the fall workshops included: human behavior and environment; air pollution and climate change; water and watersheds; conflict and communication; waste and recycling; local environmental policy; storm water management; energy/transportation/alternative energy strategies; land use/agriculture/planning. There was a mix of classroom lectures and field trips. For each session, Dr. Rhoda Meador, Assistant Director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell, presented activities to increase the leadership skills of the participants. The RESP will be implemented in the Southern Tier and Capital regions this spring.

On February 3, 2009, CPAE sponsored a day-long symposium on aging and the environment. Featured speakers included Ms Kathy Sykes, the Director of the Aging Initiative for the US Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Lenard Kaye from the University of Maine, and Dr. Nancy Wells from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell.

For Further Information

Contact Linda P. Wagenet, 254-7460, lpw2@cornell.edu.

Pillemer, K. & Wagenet, L.P. (2008). Taking Action: Environmental Volunteerism and Civic Engagement by Older People. Public Policy & Aging Report, 18(2)1, 23-27.

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