A Tribute to Martha Holstein

Martha Holstein, an extraordinary aging studies scholar, ethicist and activist on issues of greater equality for older women, minorities and low-income elders, died on Nov. 24, 2021, in Chicago, Ill. This was distressing news for many in aging studies and programs, and heartbreaking for those of us who knew her as a close friend and colleague.

Although Martha’s first academic love was history, an early marriage and the birth of her two daughters cut short her graduate studies in that field as she devoted herself to being a mom and teaching a history class on the side. While her daughters, Jennifer and Julie, were always her greatest source of pride and joy, she craved a career where she could make a difference on a larger scale.

An early activist against the war in Vietnam and other injustices, and one increasingly concerned about issues like the feminization of poverty, she began her long career with the American Society on Aging, where she served as Assistant Director from 1976 to 1990.

Martha’s increasing interest in ethical challenges in later life, particularly for women, led her leave that position and the city she loved for graduate studies with Dr. Thomas Cole at the University of Texas Medical School Center on Ethics, and the two became lifelong colleagues, intellectual partners and friends. Martha completed her doctorate in 1996 and took a position with Chicago’s Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics until 2001, and then became a co-director at the Center for Long-Term Care Reform within its Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, also in Chicago.

Their Friendship Influenced His Thinking

I met Martha in the early 1990s when I was transitioning from a 20-year career in public administration into academia at the University of South Florida. During our initial conversation, Martha and I discovered that we shared several interests, especially ethical dimensions of the aging experience, public policy in aging and how race, class and gender shape the aging experience. That initial conversation did not end until Martha’s death at age 80. Talking with Martha became one of the most rewarding aspects of my second career in social gerontology.

In reflecting back on 30 years of friendship and collegial relationship, I’m struck by just how much Martha influenced my thinking about issues that became my central concerns in the course of my academic career. I had already begun to think that long-term care research and policy analysis were not sufficient to convince policymakers to make fundamental changes in the way we care for elders.

My dialogue with Martha soon convinced me that it was important to bring a moral critique to bear on long-term care policy and practices organized around the principles of an ethic of care, drawn largely from the feminist ethics literature.

Martha’s deep interest in feminist thought and practice began in the 1970s, remained a preoccupation throughout her career, and was a rich source for her research and writing. This deep interest wasn’t just a matter of intellectual curiosity but also her concrete concerns for the often gender-based hardships for women as they grew older, especially lower income and BIPOC older women.

‘Talking with Martha became one of the most rewarding aspects of my second career in social gerontology.’

In the last decade of her career, Martha became increasingly intrigued by the relationship between gender, race and class (the intersectionality of discrimination and oppression) and the American political economy. We had many conversations about the impact of the growing dominance of corporate power in U.S. society and its increasing control over virtually every dimension of our politics and public policy. She thought that these trends, which became particularly acute in the early 1980s, could eventually undermine, if allowed to continue, long-standing programs designed to protect the economic well-being of older people and ensure their access to health and long-term care.

Martha addresses these concerns in her 2015 book, “Women in Late Life: Critical Perspectives on Gender and Age” (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield). This book, in my judgement, is one of the best now available in demonstrating just how much of a threat the shifts in our political economy toward what is often referred to as neoliberalism represent to the future of economic and health security for older people, especially women and minorities.

Martha was concerned that if the moral culture of neoliberalism, and the public policy agenda it was developed to defend, continue to tighten their grip on American political institutions, programs like Social Security and Medicare would be increasingly threatened and new policy initiatives to improve the lives of older people would be thwarted.

Martha’s concerns about these threats to the well-being of older people in the decades ahead only deepened after the publication of her book. She had begun to think about a follow-up to the book that would more closely analyze the impact of these trends on older people and their families and identify moral and political resources that could be mobilized in their defense. Martha was also interested in finding ways to connect these concerns with her deep interest in ensuring a livable future for younger generations facing the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear weapons.

Critiquing 'Productive Aging'

These intellectual and moral concerns grew organically from several sources, including her graduate work with Thomas Cole. One of the first projects Martha undertook after completing her doctorate was a passionate and deeply informed critique of the productive aging concept, which was largely based on economic and medical criteria for assessing an older person’s quality of life.

Martha wrote several versions of her critique, addressing the issues and making a compelling case for the capacity of older people to live very well even if they weren’t affluent or had chronic illnesses or impairments. Many older people, she argued, lived rich, full lives of value to their communities and families, without being highly active volunteers or senior Olympians.

Old age provides unique opportunities for many to take a more reflective perspective on life and its inherently moral and spiritual dimensions; opportunities that may not have been available when we they were younger. Martha’s critique of the concept of productive aging was not intended to exclude anyone from living a valued life in old age, but rather to expand the notion of a valued old age.

It is not difficult to see why Martha thought the priority placed on self-sufficiency in a neoliberal political economy and moral culture was a threat to her notion of the value of old age. Her critique of neoliberalism was essentially an extension of her critique of the concept of productive aging and her commitment to an ethics of aging. Following the publication of her book, she continued to read and think about the future of aging in America and elsewhere as neoliberalism evolved, climate change intensified, and global political conflicts emerged.

She was concerned that the moral culture of neoliberalism would threaten elders’ safety nets like Social Security and Medicare.

Martha’s body of work represents what became known in the mid-1980s as critical or emancipatory gerontology. She was a pioneer and continuing contributor to critical gerontology along with her highly valued colleagues, including Chris Phillipson, Harry (Rick) Moody, Meredith Minkler, Carroll Estes and many others.

It is not possible to discuss all of the extraordinary work Martha completed during her life, nor the breadth of her influence among many colleagues and the many readers of her work.

I have barely touched on her extensive work on ethics and the ways she found to apply feminist ethics to her own work in aging and an ethic of care. For example, this perspective very much informed her extensive work on long-term care policy and practice.

Martha brought her background in ethics to bear on her long-term care policy analysis and program-planning work, pressing against the limits of what can usually be achieved from a pragmatic perspective on long-term care reform. She came to understand that the failure of long-term care in the United States, to provide the kinds and amounts of services that people prefer and are best designed to meet their needs, is truly tragic. This perspective, however, did not keep Martha from doing her best to make long-term care better for more Americans throughout her career.

Loved Life Playfully

Despite her many contributions to critical gerontology, feminism and improving long-term care policy and the lives of older women, Martha’s many friends, colleagues and her wonderful family also will remember her whimsy and sheer love of life. This playful side was captured, for example, on her 60th birthday, when she brought helium balloons to her beloved Tilden Park in Berkeley to let them soar among the clouds (or simply crash to the ground!) as she celebrated that milestone with several close women friends.

We’ll remember, as well, her great warmth, generosity, kindness and charm, and that twinkle in her eye as she hatched a new intellectual idea or shared the latest joys and accomplishments of her beloved daughters and their families. And all of us, as well as future generations, will continue to learn from her intellectual work available in many publications.

Martha was a unique spiritual and intellectual presence among us for many years and her influence will be long felt. We are deeply grateful that we were fortunate enough to know and learn from the wonderful scholar, teacher, mother and grandmother, lifelong activist, friend and human being, our beloved Martha Holstein.

Larry Polivka, PhD, was executive director of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee until his retirement in 2021.

Photo of Martha Holstein courtesy of Jennifer and Julie Holstein.