Accidental Tourists: How 2 Gerontologists Found Their Field

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BOB'S STORY: I am fortunate to have two paternal grandparents. One through my biological family, which was ruptured by mother's early divorce when I was 7 years old and the second through my step-father, later to be my adopted father. Although both of these men were entrepreneurs of a sort, they could not be more different from each other. My biological grandfather was rough honed. He was Catholic and Italian who as a merchant marine prior to the advent of World War I jumped ship onto the Philadelphia docks. He never returned to Italy. Instead, he became a self-employed painter in Philadelphia, his adopted city.

As a child, I can remember spending virtually every Sunday afternoon after church at my grandfather's house. We would have a family dinner composed always of pasta (still my favorite) and other Italian delights. His approach to life was direct, vigorous, and aggressive. He took no prisoners nor made any excuses for himself. He believed in hard work and had little compassion for others. He painted water towers and worked on constructing the bridges that connected the Florida Keys in the early part of the 20th century and cost the lives of hundreds. He prepared me for toughness in a harsh world.

My other grandfather, whom I came to know after my mother married for the second time, was a conservative Protestant. He was also an entrepreneur of a small trucking business who believed strongly in providing honest work. His handshake was his bond. He believed in fair play and was extremely ethical, non-emotional, and somewhat distant. He was the kind of person who would never say he loved you, but you knew he did. He was tough in a different way than my biological grandfather. His toughness was not so much displayed in physical aggression and attitude toward the world, but rather in his firm belief in honesty, frugality, and fairness. I would spend my summer weekends with him, helping him to repair or build extensions to his house and properties at the Jersey Shore (a place where I vacation to this day). He was so frugal that he would only pay me two or three dollars for the 16 or so hours of work I gave him every weekend, but I didn't care. I was just happy to be able to spend time with him and learn from him. In all his transactions with others that I observed, I heard him only curse once (and that was in a whisper out of earshot of others). This is in stark contrast to my Italian grandfather.

Lately, an incredible thing has been happening. Undergraduates are beginning to take an interest in the field of gerontology.

Maybe it's because I lost contact with my biological grandfather after my mother got divorced that, as a child, I enjoyed being close to and listening to the stories of the older folks in my  neighborhood. I remember the McCanns with great fondness. They were an octogenarian couple who lived across the street from me. And on summer evenings (before air conditioning was common), they would sit outside their house to cool off in the evening air from the sweltering heat and regale me with stories of their youth -- the roaring '20s or the hardships they experienced in the devastating Depression. I was endlessly fascinated by their stories and the tales of other older adults who resided in my neighborhood, which in those days was a close community. I would offer to assist, gratis, the older adults, especially the single or widowed older women, with their chores. Or I would go to the store, or walk their dogs, or take out their storm windows in the spring and put them back in the fall.

With life experiences like these, it was not surprising that I decided to accept a paid fellowship at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center (PGC) when I was completing my doctoral studies at the New School For Social Research in New York City. At the time, some of my friends were excited for me and thought I was embarking on a burgeoning career full of lucrative opportunities. Others thought I was crazy. At that time there were virtually no courses or books available on aging and they though I was wasting my time chasing after an illusion. Gerontology for all practical matters was an unknown field that barely existed.

Crazy though the decision to accept the fellowship may have been, it was one of the best moves I ever made. Because PGC offered to grant me time to work on my dissertation so long as it was in the field of gerontology, I put aside a Ph.D. proposal I had already drafted on the cognitive development of children and began studying learned helplessness in older women.

At PGC I was heavily influenced by M. Powell Lawton, a preeminent figure in the study of aging, and a Quaker who, like my adopted grandfather, lived and walked his philosophical or ethical principles in his day-to-day life. He was my inspirational mentor, my model for carrying out research projects with the practical aim of improving the lives of older adults, my most vocal supporter, and, in the end, my friend and colleague. He was a very caring and compassionate man who, I believe, was driven more than anything else by the sincere humanitarian motive to help others through his research, teaching, and leadership. I have modeled my entire professional life after him. I have endeavored to carry out Powell's commitment of keeping the voice of gerontology alive and maintaining a positive impact in my academy, community, research, and teaching.

At Alfred University, where I am professor of psychology and director of its gerontology program, I was the first to develop a service learning course in aging where students had the opportunity to engage in an activity with older adults who resided in the community. I also developed cross-listed courses in psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, and biology. Our service learning courses have also had tremendous influence on the shape of programs at the local county's office for aging as well as on state policies related to improving the quality and access to aging services.

The gerontology faculty at Alfred University has developed a multidisciplinary major and minor that emphasizes the interdisciplinary roots of social sciences, psychology, and biology that distinguish the field of gerontology. For more than two decades our enrollments and participation in our major and minor has remained relatively flat. This has been very disappointing and administrators would suggest that our program in gerontology should be eliminated or at the very least embedded in another major as a concentration within it.

But lately, an incredible thing has been happening. Undergraduates are beginning to take an interest in the field of gerontology. Last year, a freshman in the fine arts program approached me and announced that she had started a gerontology club of 15 undergraduates. I was stunned. This was amazing. Our courses in gerontology are becoming heavily enrolled, indicating a growing interest in students in the field of aging. This growing interest after a recent stall in participation in gerontology is occurring at the national level. Last year, the Gerontological Society of America reported that its membership is growing again after years of decline. Another national organization in the field of aging, the Association of Gerontologist in Higher Education, has also reported an uptick in its membership. The annual meeting later this month has the highest registration that it has seen in a long time. Perhaps the service learning courses are having their intended effect.

Image: 1. Nejron Photo/Shutterstock; 2. Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock; 3. tepic/Shutterstock.

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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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