Our Guest Editor: Complex Yet Compelling Take on Narratives About Aging

Guest Editor Mark Luborsky is a thoughtful person who’s easily amused by life and intensely people-focused. This could partially be due to his training as a social anthropologist, and his affinity for hands-on projects. He is a professor in Wayne State University’s (WSU) Institute of Gerontology, director of Aging and Health Disparities Research, and professor of Anthropology. And he co-directs Social Work and Anthropology, an innovative integrated doctoral degree at WSU.

His academic and professional path has been winding, as although aging may not have been on the radar of social anthropologists while he was studying in the 1980s, his dissertation field work compared the retirement transitions of men and women.

“That work enabled me to join the Philadelphia Geriatric Center as one of what the research director M. Powell Lawton deemed his ‘infestation of anthropologists’ among multidisciplinary researchers,” said Luborsky. During that time, he helped to establish the Association for Anthropology and Gerontology, moving to Wayne State in 1997.

In Detroit he’s working on an initiative with the Detroit Mercy College of Dentistry to alleviate oral health disparities among older minorities, and in Sweden he’s at work on a team project, “Application and Evaluation of a Method to Co-Create learning Organizations in Health and Social Care for Frail Older Persons,” which includes training providers in narrative strategies to enhance patient-centered care.

He is also writing up a multiyear, multidisciplinary project that involved the EPA, CDC, Michigan Department of Health, and community groups examining exposure to environmentally persistent industrial toxicants (e.g., PCBs, mercury) among disadvantaged Detroiters who fish to provide sustenance. The project culminated in devising and evaluating interventions. Findings identified significant harmful chemical levels and health promotion challenges and solutions requiring attention to the intersections of historical, cultural, biological, and behavioral issues. The result of the work was an interactive museum exhibit “Follow the Lines: Environmental Legacy, Health & Fishing the Detroit River,” which drew more than 4,000 residents.

For two terms Luborsky served as editor-in-chief of Medical Anthropology Quarterly: International Journal for Analysis of Health.  

This work all aligns with Luborsky’s deep curiosity about how people seek continuity and change across the lifespan, and why some individuals and organizations function well long-term in facing hardships due to health or life circumstances and transitions, yet others struggle unendingly.

“While I’ve received my share of awards for research and mentoring, I'm particularly grateful for the recognition of international scientific leadership when I was competitively selected for appointment to full professor as Foreign Adjunct Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences, and Society at the Karolinska Institutet Medical University, Stockholm, Sweden. I spent several weeks multiple times a year there for over 20 years.”

As a bonus, “attending the Nobel ceremony and banquets is quite the experience,” he said.

Why do some people and organizations function well facing hardships due to health or life circumstances and transitions, yet others struggle unendingly?

While pondering whether to guest edit this remarkable issue of Generations Journal, Luborsky wandered into a nearby old cemetery where he found a section for infants, an adjacent area for unwed mothers, and in the center a circle of church leaders. “Preserved for eternity in death was a life narrative embodied in motion and places I traversed, which maps our American views of life stage categories, judgments about life circumstances and community social positions. The narrative path also recreated normative but now resisted older cultural categories of social life.

“This walking narrative connected viscerally with me to the invitation to speak to audiences about ways to see necessary but less well-recognized forms by which we discuss ideas about age and aging,” he said.

He hopes readers’ curiosity will be stimulated to ask new questions. How many ways do we talk about aging? How can we now recognize it and use it to confront otherwise commonsense, taken-for-granted ideas and practices about aging and later life?

“I hope such questions can advance readers’ work in research, policy, or practice,” Luborsky added.

He thinks raising their awareness of the ways we talk about aging can open new opportunities for learning and interventions such as in the design of our built environment, daily technology, cross-cultural data, political structures, media, and career paths. Also, learning the diverse ways senior scholars and older people talk about their lives and careers can highlight alternative routes for living long lives as they span successively different times, places, and conditions.

This issue offers tools in the form of critical concepts that can lead to more productive questions and studies. How do we define the “case of aging” and what to include in that definition? For instance, now we define aging in a more intersectional way than we had in the past, moving away from defining aging only in terms of the chronologically advanced body. Also, Luborsky included in the issue ways to talk about aging using international quantitative databases for comparison, cross-national ethics for late-life, or comparisons between historical periods in one country.

His take on how we talk about aging is a philosophical, anthropological, academic and practical exercise, all at the same time. It’s a fascinating issue put together by a complicated person, and I hope you learn as much as I did while reading it.

Alison Biggar is ASA’s Editorial Director.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/fran_kie