In this issue of Generations Journal, senior gerontologists describe their professional odysseys, mapping a complex landscape of personal, interpersonal, and sociocultural factors in the gerontology field. As the gerontologists age, their professional narratives are interwoven with autobiography. We are a group of emerging scholars who looked to this issue as a map of the field. We drew connections between our experiences and those of the senior scholars and found a common principle of proximity to study and describe aging, including multidisciplinary perspectives, closeness to our communities, and shared empathy across life stages—all of which are essential to gerontology.
gerontologists, personal, professional, community, empathy, life stages, scholars
“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”
—Tobler’s First Law of Geography
When creating a model simulation that would provide a language for describing urban population growth in Detroit, MI, W.R. Tobler (1970) stipulated a “first law of geography,” beginning with the assumption that everything is related to everything else. This would seem to mean systems are too complex to be knowable, but he emphasized that large variable sets may allow complex models to be more tractable than simple ones. Discovery, th¬en, is in the description of proximity—mapping the nearness of properties and events in time, process, and location—rather than over-simplifying a dynamic system.
What can be said of geography is also true of gerontology as a discipline, and of the gerontologist’s experience. Gerontology is the study of change and stability across the adult lifespan in all personal, interpersonal, and cultural spaces. We can best understand the process of aging by accepting its complexity. The elements of time and space cannot be conveniently carved up because the experience of aging blurs the contingent, culturally constructed, often arbitrary boundaries we draw between them.
Personal narratives of aging are told through the connections between events and relationships in our lives, and the links stretch forward over the years to a destined conclusion, often only evident in hindsight. The gerontologist, then, is the cartographer, sketching the aging landscape; and discovery comes from describing the proximity between the personalized episodes and the sociocultural context that are the landscape’s terrain. Of course, terrains are not static, and in the lifelong pursuit of mapping their change, the gerontologist becomes a habitant of that aging landscape. The gerontologist’s autobiography interweaves with their scholarship, and the boundaries are blurred at those crossing points.
In this issue of Generations Journal, senior gerontologists share their interwoven personal–professional odysseys that have shaped the field. We are a group of emerging scholars at the start of our careers—an assistant professor, post-doctoral fellows, and advanced doctoral students—who were invited to review their writings. Our expertise is as varied as the senior scholars we are reading: neuroscience, social psychology, anthropology, cognitive development, occupational therapy, and nursing. Throughout our discussion, we have mapped the connections between their writings and our personal experiences to find, despite our differences in discipline and experience, a common principle of proximity to study and describe aging.
Proximity to Ideas: A Gerontologist Is Made in the Space Between Theory and Application
If everything is related to everything else in the scholarship of aging, then any expertise is relevant to gerontology. The multidisciplinary nature of gerontology is highlighted in the varied perspectives of the junior and senior scholars in this issue. We share a common experience in approaching aging research from a home discipline other than formal gerontology. A gerontologist is defined via the application of scholarship, and, it seems, not in the specific theories or methods from our training.
Perhaps this definition derived from application reflects the complexity of the system we study. The senior scholars outline variable sets ad infinitum, including economics, social policies, personal health, interpersonal relationships, cultural identities, and geographic disparities. Invoking Tobler’s law, discovery in aging relies upon knowing the proximity of the relationship among variables. Placing variable sets next to one another is not enough; connections between sets must be drawn.
Each gerontologist, with their different home specialty, charts only a part of the aging experience, and a map of the whole field relies upon stitching together their different accounts. The gerontologist’s choice of details for their corner of the map and their ability to link that specialty to myriad other perspectives depends as much upon collegiality among scholars of different disciplines as it does upon training from any one discipline. In other words, proximity to different ideas about aging helps to make a gerontologist.
With this insight, we found it even more curious that so many in our group of early career scholars contend with fears of not belonging in the field. Our origins in gerontology research are best described as circumstantial, including second careers, clinical re-specialization, and coincidental post-doctoral experiences. (A training in early childhood cognitive development did not obviously lead to a post-doctoral fellowship in a laboratory specializing in aging.)
‘The allure of research questions and clinical practice about aging may have beckoned us to gerontology, but close mentors in the field taught us we could stay.’
In sharing these fears of not belonging, we found a kinship with the senior scholars Nancy Morrow-Howell, who came to gerontology by responding to advocacy for an older population; Marcia Ory, who was encouraged by colleagues at a new professional appointment; and Peter Lichtenberg, who was propelled by experiences of personal loss. Productive and meaningful careers in gerontology do not necessarily begin with that intention from the start of training or even as a first career.
The allure of research questions and clinical practice about aging may have beckoned us to gerontology, but close mentors in the field taught us we could stay. From the periphery, it can be difficult to understand exactly what gerontology is. At some point, we each sought out a mentor (often outside our immediate training environment) to learn definitions of gerontology and to validate our roles in it.
Lichtenberg alerts us that specialized training is needed for gerontologists and shares the concern that fewer professionals are seeking it. Looking back upon the recent years of our careers, we noted that we had all received specialized training from other gerontologists, in many ways delivered informally through research or clinical mentorship. Without that access to gerontologists at these pivotal moments, we would not now be part of the cadre Lichtenberg describes. Upon our collective reflections, this principle of proximity to different ideas about aging seems to be essential for not only the practice of gerontology but also the training of the gerontologist.
Proximity of Experience: What Is Lacked in Years, A Gerontologist Makes Up for in Empathy
Even with training, there remains the somewhat harsh reality that most active gerontologists have no first-hand experience of being old. We all felt Andy Achenbaum’s father’s censure, “What the f--- do you know about old age?” as well as the reassurance from Lichtenberg that empathy and experiences at any life stage, even when not backed by the standard of time, help us to “cross the invisible boundaries between younger and older adults.”
Several in our group of emerging scholars hold a lifespan perspective in our work that reinforces the value of experience at any life stage to supply empathy for the study of aging. This perspective is shared with the senior scholars and, in our view, relates to ideas of productive aging (Butler & Gleason, 1985). In this issue, several senior scholars point to aspects of productive aging as a new model of the time that was a tidal force directing the course of their careers. Although the motivations, skills, and interests for adults to be societally productive change over the life course, as Lena Borell notes, the constant “needs for inclusion, participation, and meaning runs through life as a strong theme.”
There is a universal human experience that qualifies a younger gerontologist similarly to an older one. This is not to minimize the fact that ageism and exclusionary social structures, which initially inspired the productive aging model, are not yet fully dismantled. Considering a lifespan perspective may help to address these biases by reframing aging as a cumulative and progressive experience across all adult years. Or, in Achenbaum’s eloquent phrasing, “manifold faces of age and many pathways to advancing in years … . All nonetheless must prepare for and face up to death’s inevitability.”
The lifespan perspective is only useful, though, if framed as deficit and gain in aging. Addressing widespread concerns over declining health and premature mortality has been an obvious way to communicate the value of our work to society. This became a constant undercurrent in gerontology, which pulls research and social services to address the deficits in aging. Morrow-Howell notes that the “overexposure to problems, tough situations, poor quality of life” we gain socially and professionally immerses us in the “age as deficit reality.” The clinician and nurse in our group spoke to this having a monumental emphasis in their personal experience of gerontology simply due to facing daily the needs of patients in their care.
‘We can compensate by including older voices in research, clinical translation, and policymaking as an imperative of modern gerontology.’
While addressing deficits is warranted, the pull of this undercurrent slows discovery without the counterforce of gains, engagement, and insights gifted with age. Age as deficit is a map of only the hazardous terrains, and it ignores the vistas. A gerontologist charting the aging experience thoroughly will be fascinated by the paradoxical proximity of deficit and gain that unfurls across the lifespan and that, amid these changes, there is the constant need for meaning in life.
This lifespan perspective is projected in the autobiographical accounts of the senior scholars as they view their own process of aging through gerontology scholarship. Just as Peter Greenaway (1979) described a map telling “where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going—in a sense, it’s three tenses in one,” we gerontologists are simultaneously in the present, and looking forward and backward in time. There is a vulnerability in aging while studying aging that we relate to as emerging scholars, even when we have more time ahead of us than not. For either good or ill, we are aware of our own aging and the importance of present decisions to our older selves awaiting us decades from now. The same applies to our scholarship as we try to read the currents in the field to find direction and to decide which research questions and clinical practices might have the most significant societal value (also likely delayed by decades, given the speed of translating research to practice).
For all the value we can provide as gerontologists, despite our youth, we still cannot confidently tell Achenbaum’s father that we know today’s older adult experience. If the first-hand experience of old age qualifies a gerontologist, we will be perennially disadvantaged because the odds are there will always be someone older than us. We can compensate by including older voices in research, clinical translation, and policymaking as an imperative of modern gerontology. Community-partnered research leverages older adults’ personal experiences to improve the quality and impact of scholarship. Evermore important are the experiences of historically excluded and marginalized groups, which have been left off the map.
If we learn how to draw boundaries and connections from our academic training, then we borrow the palette to color our maps from our closest community partners. The shaded nuance and depth of aging—the humaneness in our scholarship—comes from listening to older adults describe their concerns, triumphs, and aspirations. Here, we found another application of the proximity principle to include our communities, where the quality of scholarship entwines with the quality of our personal relationships. Kyriakos Markides speaks of his productive career addressing diversity issues in aging, and we can see how community connection created a type of dialect in his scholarship.
We anticipate that as qualitative and mixed methods study designs become more prominent tools in the future, they will center the diverse experiences of older adults in the research process and science communication, especially when it comes to intersectional identities. Gerontology research teams are expanding to include multidisciplinary scholars and community partners that are ideally situated to guide us through the aging landscape.
Proximity in Process: The Continuity of Scholarship Across Generations of Gerontologists
Ideas take time to form and even longer to take effect. This is especially true in gerontology, as new cohorts are born only every few decades, and so the process of learning about aging unfolds across generations of gerontologists. The benefit of today’s scholarship will become evident years from now in the lives and work of emerging scholars and manifest in the infrastructure supporting older adults. Each gerontologist changes the aging landscape by the very act of exploration, and we traced a cause-and-effect chain made in the links between our careers and the work of the senior scholars nearest to us.
The next generation of gerontologists is not necessarily tackling new issues in aging. In many cases, we are seeing through the evolution of self-efficacy, health, and well-being for older adults, similar themes to what the senior scholars in this issue have been developing. In their writings, these scholars identify significant themes of their work in retrospect, but what would they have predicted for themselves and the field at the start of their careers? Here, we dabble in some prognostication for the next 30 years of gerontology research.
We anticipate that the lifespan perspective on aging will be an organizing principle for the field. The past few decades of work have characterized the general experiences of the older adult in late life, their care needs, and their contributions in the workplace and community. Because no singular age denotes “old age,” characterizing the onset and progression of change (deficit and gain) is the next stage of understanding and, in turn, promoting the welfare of older adults as they themselves defined it. This way, we can begin to separate the actual limits in human functioning from the artificial limits that Morrow-Howell highlights in her writing. Artificial limits plague us at any age, in our scholarship as much as in personal life. These authors inspire us to challenge ourselves to disregard the artificial limits that we and others impose.
‘We are propelled by a desire to promote health and well-being into late life, to maintain self-efficacy for older adults, and to combat ageism.’
This is a convenient framework to consider the contextual factors that modify individual experiences of aging. The articles in this issue highlight social, cultural, economic, and mental health contexts, and we anticipate subsequent decades of research will expand to consider the environment, as well as early life factors, and the interactions among them. The majority of gerontology research has been conducted in Western cultures with samples of limited diversity. This has been a productive start but is insufficient for understanding the full complexity of individualized aging; we have only just begun detailing this part of the terrain.
We hear Markides’s call to incorporate a social context into our understanding of aging and the means to improve the lives of older adults. The study of individual contextual factors is as essential for identifying resiliency in aging as it is for tailored interventions to reduce health disparities in late life. The path forward for this is not entirely charted, as many existing methods and study designs were not intentionally made for this purpose. There are new places open for the gerontologist specializing in method development, science communication in a time of radical mistrust of intellectualism, or student training to improve representation in our professions to better reflect the diversity of our communities.
At the start of our careers, we are propelled by a desire to promote health and well-being into late life, to maintain self-efficacy for older adults, and to combat ageism. “For the researchers the meaning is there in the open every day,” says Borell, and we are motivated to improve the aging experience for our families and ourselves. But our ambition alone is not enough. We need advocates in education and research funding to support this work. More than ever, gerontology will become a team-science model to cover the breadth of the skills required to implement a study, build meaningful relationships in our communities, and communicate the importance of the work across social sectors.
Ory provides a wonderful history of the field that was the context for her personal odyssey at a time when the National Institute on Aging was established and there was heightened advocacy to reframe the aging experience. We now have a different context for our work: We have never known a time without the National Institute on Aging, and their research funding priorities have shaped the field to exaggerate aging-as-deficit and health as a principal definition of “successful aging.”
The work has been nonetheless successful, leading to increased longevity and decreased dementia rates in most industrialized countries (World Health Organization, 2022). Thus, in the next 30 years, we will have more older adults experiencing non-catastrophic decline than ever before. We are living today in the midst of a substantial shift in the aging landscape that will force evolution in research priorities and practice to support an active, engaged older generation for longer.
Charting a Course for a New Expedition
This is the vantage point from which we embark on our careers. We turn to existing maps of the field to plan our course. In this issue, senior scholars sketch the terrains of their careers with clean lines that can only be made in retrospect. They have given us maps without all the false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends of a map made in real time. There remain areas of study wholly uncharted and those awaiting new details of the perpetually shifting landscape. We now pick up the search where they leave off. What discoveries and pitfalls await us?
This brings to mind a scene of the British sitcom from the late 1980s, Blackadder II (Fletcher, 1986) upon planning for a voyage: “The foremost cartographers of the land have prepared this for you; it’s a map of the area that you’ll be traversing.” Blackadder opens the map to see it is blank. “They’ll be very grateful if you could just fill it in as you go along.”
And so, we will.
We thank Dr. Mark Luborsky, guest editor of this issue, for the invitation to contribute this piece and for his useful comments throughout the process. Kelsey L. Canada was supported by NIH grant F32-HD108960.
All authors are affiliated with the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. Ana M. Daugherty, PhD, is an assistant professor, jointly appointed to the Department of Psychology; Kelsey L. Canada, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow; Alexis N. Chargo, MOT, is an occupational therapist and doctoral student in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology; Katherine Knauft, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow jointly in the Department of Psychology and Department of Family Medicine; Candace E.M. Ryan, MSc, is a nurse practitioner and doctoral student in College of Nursing; and Kimberly Shay, MA, is a doctoral student in Anthropology. All co-authors made equal contributions, and names are listed alphabetically. Daugherty may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Alexey Seafarer
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