Accidental Tourists: How 2 Gerontologists Found Their Field



The research has shown that many of us who come to the field of aging do so by way of early experiences with our grandparents, as was true for both of us. Our affinity for older adults began as young children. We also were lucky to have interesting opportunities in the field of gerontology presented to us, and excellent mentors along the way.

JUDY'S STORY: Both of my parents grew up in intergenerational households, and while I lived with my nuclear family, I spent a lot of time with older relatives. I was always fascinated by family stories and histories during the time I spent with my maternal and paternal grandparents during the summer. My family had older women who helped out and were nurturing, but also direct, about life and did not hesitate to discipline me if necessary. The book, The Help, resonated with me. I was particularly close to Pops, my maternal grandfather, who had an easy way and exposed my to "country life." He was the ultimate rural multi-tasker -- into rural real estate, raising various crops and animals, some exotic.

My undergraduate university did not offer any courses in aging, and when I decided to switch graduate programs three weeks before classes began, the only funding remaining was a federal Administration on Aging traineeship in gerontology. I remember asking the chair of the sociology department at Syracuse (where I was in a Ph.D. program) what gerontology was -- I only knew from my Latin studies that it was the study of something. He said that I should just check it out, that there was not an obligation to stay in the field. However, like many of my colleagues, I was hooked immediately, despite dissuasion by some about why I would be interested in working in such a "depressing" field. This was no doubt due to my inherent interest in older people, desire for a career in a service profession, and the engaging and interactive environment of the All-University Gerontology Center. All graduate students in the program were required to enroll in a semester-long practicum, an unusual educational experience at that time, now referred to as service-learning. I was assigned to the Syracuse Department for the Aging where I conducted a small study to assess older persons' views of the accessibility of public transportation, which involved riding on city buses and interviewing older riders.

My father, Charles Howe, a Unitarian-Universalist minister, as well as a university professor in his earlier career, was influential in my life. He expected his children to enter a helping profession, and since I was floundering a bit as I entered graduate school, he encouraged me to "be involved" with older people in the community and "not just study it." My father was very persistent, and as the church minister, decided that I should become co-chair of a church committee to start an arts and crafts program for older adults, which was named "The Recreation Generation" (this was 1973). The co-chair was an older, dynamic, artistic member of the church. While the name of the program now seems a bit antiquated, it continues 40 years later with the same name and is now co-sponsored by the Town of Dewitt Parks and Recreation Department. It offers workshops in watercolor, Chinese brush painting, fiber loom weaving, stained glass, and needle work, and is a senior nutrition site.

Also, while in graduate school, I was asked by a sociology professor, Jerry Jacobs, to assist in a participant observation study for a book he was writing on a retirement community in the southwest. I ate many meals over the course of a semester in the dining room of Toomey Abbot Towers, senior housing which was adjacent to the Syracuse University Gerontology Center, conversing with the older residents and learning about their lives. Having shared numerous meals in my early life with older people, it was comforting to spend mealtimes with the older residents. I also visited on older man (then referred to as a "shut in") in his home as a friendly visitor on a regular basis. He was quite depressed and not doing well, and sometimes I felt that I was not equipped to carry on a conversation with him or help him with some daily chores. But I quickly adapted, and realized that I had an innate ability to communicate with an older person, even one that was not my relative.

At this time I was feeling a bit disconnected with my highly theoretical Ph.D. program in sociology. I was struggling with how the social theoretical debate between Weber and Marx was going to lead me to a satisfying career. My gerontology experiential programs made me realize that I wanted to somehow connect with this population rather than pursue a more traditional and theoretical academic career.

My accidental career continued throughout the decades and was enriched by a mentor, Marjorie Cantor, a major figure in the field of gerontology who examined the lives of New York City elders. I would say she was my most significant mentor. In 1988 we talked on the Amtrak coming back from a meeting in Albany and we struck up a relationship that ended up with me receiving a doctorate (finally) in social welfare with a concentration in gerontology from Fordham with her as my advisor. I was also fortunate to work for many years with Dr. Robert N. Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging and then the first chair of the department of geriatrics at Mount Sinai. He opened doors for me, as did Rose Dobrof, another well known gerontologist.

My particular interests in the field of gerontology are education, policy, interdisciplinary teamwork, community services, housing, curriculum development, and teaching methods. Since 1999, when the course was established, I have been a small group co-facilitator in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Art and Science of Medicine program for first year medical students. In this course, we expose students to the so-called soft areas of medicine, including communication, policy, and interprofessional teamwork. The first year medical students have brief immersion experiences in the community of East Harlem, New York, including a walking tour and visiting a site serving indigent clients, many of them older. One of the sites that they visit is Linkage House, a housing model for older adults which I was involved in developing almost 20 years ago, and for which I remain board chair. Medical students, geriatrics fellows, and graduate students in a variety of fields have had service learning experiences at Linkage House, including assessing the need for assistive devices in the residents' apartments, studying their social networks, initiating a program for Chinese residents, and giving talks on healthy aging. Linkage House is an excellent example of how community-based experience can be successfully integrated into learning strategies for students.

As a gerontologist, I wear several hats, which makes my career particularly rewarding. I develop and direct interprofessional learning programs for allied health trainees and palliative care fellows and I oversee a federally funded consortium of three universities that provides interdisciplinary education in aging. I am also the editor of a journal that publishes on topics in gerontology and geriatrics education. I have had a very rewarding career in large part because the field of gerontology is an ever-changing, dynamic, and exciting interdisciplinary field which allows one to expand professionally in many directions. Career opportunities are boundless for those who are forward looking and like to think outside the box.

Presented by

Judith Howe & Robert Maiden

Judith L. Howe is a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Robert Maiden is a professor in the department of psychology and director of the gerontology program at Alfred University. More

Judith L. Howe, Ph.D., is a professor in the departments of geriatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine; director of the New York Consortium of Geriatric Education Centers; and editor in chief of Gerontology and Geriatrics Education.

Robert Maiden, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of psychology and director of the gerontology program at Alfred University.

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