Building Better Networks for Adults Aging with Autism

This post originally appeared in Autism Spectrum News.

By Caitlin Coyle and Danielle Waldron

Although traditionally understood as a childhood condition, autism is a lifelong disorder that presents in both children and adults. Many of the children with this disorder who were born during the last century and who are now reaching mid- and later-life did not receive formal diagnoses of autism. Further, increases in human longevity and the aging of the largest birth cohort (born between 1946-1964) in our nation’s history suggest that although prevalence rates of autism remain around 1% of the population, the sheer numbers of these adults stands to increase dramatically in coming years.

Caitlin Coyle, left and Danielle Waldron

Caitlin Coyle, left, and Danielle Waldron.

These adults on the spectrum who live much or all of their lives without diagnoses, often struggle to develop their personal identities. Due to their difficulties with communication and relationship development, they work tirelessly to manage their disorder in order to assemble lives that include stable employment, intimate social relationships and families. As one adult aging with autism describes (his or her) life without an autism diagnosis, “…something basic was missing: Not knowing how to think about and appreciate ourselves.” Continue reading

Institute Talk: A Conversation with Carl V. Hill on the NIA and Health Disparity Research

Carl V. Hill is director of the Office of Special Populations at the National Institute on Aging, which leads the federal government in conducting and supporting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. Hill recently visited the UMass Boston campus, where he was the featured speaker at the first annual Gerontology Institute Fellows Dinner. Earlier that day, Hill talked with Institute Director Len Fishman about his career, how he promotes funding for health disparity research and current priorities for the institute’s $3.1 billion research budget. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Len Fishman: How did you first become interested in a career in public health and health disparity research in particular?

Carl V. Hill: I was in the first class of the Masters of Public Health program at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The founder of that program was Dr. Bill Jenkins, who passed away this year. He was one of the first whistle-blowers on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He was also a mentor to many African-Americans in public health and he started this program that allowed many of us to have a start. Later, I had a chance to study for my PhD at the University of Michigan. I worked with people like Woody Neighbors and James S. Jackson, who both worked on the Survey of American Life. They also worked on the Survey on Black Americans, the first data collection on the lives and health of African-Americans in this country. Continue reading

Expert Advice for Institute Fellows: How to Secure Research Funding at National Institute on Aging

Len Fishman, Carl Hill, Lauri Nsiah-Jefferson and Shayla Turnipseed.

Left to right, Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman, NIA Office of Special Populations Director Carl Hill, Gerontology Institute fellow Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson and guest Shayla Turnipseed.

Carl Hill got right to the point when he brought up the subject of research funding priorities at the National Institute on Aging.

“The ‘A’ in NIA stands for aging but it’s leaning toward Alzheimer’s,” Hill told more than 40 researchers and guests attending the first annual Gerontology Institute Fellows dinner at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Hill, director of the NIA Office of Special Populations, spent a full day on the UMass Boston campus discussing funding opportunities within his institute and its $3.1 billion research budget. He pointed to the NIA’s $425 million funding increase specifically dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease research this year (by comparison, the NIA’s general appropriation for the year increased $84 million).

“We’re really part of the race for a cure,” he told the June 10 dinner audience. “We also want to understand the important determinants and factors that will help us slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.” Continue reading

A Year Later: 3 Gerontology PhDs Talk About Their Professional Lives After Graduation

One year ago, the Gerontology Institute blog brought together three newly minted UMass Boston PhDs to talk about their dissertation experiences. They discussed everything from original dissertation designs to the eventual defense of their work.

The blog recently reached out again to all three – Wendy Wang, Jane Tavares and Ian Livingstone – to ask them about their professional experience in the year following graduation. What happened after they received their degrees and how do they view their careers now? Here’s what they had to say in response to our questions:

Q: What are you doing now and how did you come to that work?

Wendy Wang: I am working full time as a post-doctoral researcher in the gerontology department at UMass Boston with Dr. Elizabeth Dugan. I used to work as Dr. Dugan’s research assistant on projects such as the Healthy Aging Data Report, dementia-friendly Massachusetts, and a scan of transportation services available to older adults in Massachusetts. At the time of my graduation, I was lucky enough that Dr. Dugan offered me a post-doc position to continue working with her on these projects.

Jane Tavares: I have remained connected to the UMB Gerontology Program and, based on my prior research experience, was approached about job opportunities at UMB. I am currently a research fellow in the Gerontology Institute, working for the LeadingAge LTSS Center. I am also teaching courses as an adjunct in the Management of Aging Services program in the Gerontology Department.

Ian Livingstone: I am working as a Research Public Health Analyst at RTI International assisting in the development and maintenance of quality measure in post-acute and long-term care settings. I started as a research analyst contractor after my second year of coursework and have been with the company since. Since defending my dissertation and graduating I have transitioned to a full-time role where I split my time between the quality measure work and an ASPE (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) funded project examining the financial impact of minimum wage increases on the nursing home industry. Continue reading

Institute Research Team Gets Funding for Healthy Aging Reports Covering Rhode Island, Connecticut

Healthy Aging NH

UMass Boston gerontology PhD student Haowei Wang shared New Hampshire Healthy Aging data with N.H. state Rep. James MacKay at a legislative breakfast in April.

A UMass Boston research team that recently published comprehensive reports on the health of older adults living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire has received new funding to produce similar studies covering two additional New England states.

The team at the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute received grants of $448,000 from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation to support healthy aging data reports for Rhode Island and Connecticut. Tufts had funded the earlier healthy aging state reports as well.

Research for the new reports began this month and is expected to be complete by April 2021. The team will be updating a previous Rhode Island report it published in 2016. The Connecticut research will become the basis of that state’s first healthy aging data report. Continue reading

Academic Life: The Education of a First-Year Gerontology PhD Student

This is the final post in a series of stories about the academic experiences of a first-year UMass Boston gerontology PhD student.

By Caitlin Connelly

It happened in the blink of an eye.

My first year as a gerontology PhD student at UMass Boston is finished and it really did go by faster than I could have imagined. Those two semesters have been a great experience, but they were also filled with their fair share of highs and lows.

A few low periods revolved around panic over the amount of work that had to be crammed into what seemed like an impossibly short amount of time. But they were offset by many high points, like the opportunity to attend the Gerontological Society of America conference – something I have wanted to do for years! I went to presentations by scholars from around the globe and realized that they were talking about the theories and using statistics that I had been learning in my classes. It was such a neat opportunity that confirmed my choice to pursue further education in the field of gerontology. Continue reading

The Aging Paradox: A Look at Later-Life Satisfaction Through the Eyes of OLLI Members

Olli members

Clockwise from top left, OLLI members Mary Doller, Al May, Jean Hunt and Steve Vorenberg.

By Caitlin Connelly

A good paradox can turn the obvious on its head.

That’s a fair way to describe the aging paradox, a concept well-known to gerontologists that challenges presumptions about the way people feel as they grow older. True, there may be many forms of loss or limitation that come with older age. But there is also empirical evidence that shows people actually experience a greater level of life satisfaction as they grow older.

In the process of living to an older age, transitions often become more than a simple shift from work to retirement and bring people to a more peaceful frame of mind, according to Kathrin Boerner, an associate professor of gerontology at UMass Boston.

“Older adults often arrive at this point where they feel like they’ve experienced a lot but they’ve also learned a lot from the experience,” said Boerner.

Those transitions can be driven by conventional forces of work and family. But the kind of older-life satisfaction described by the aging paradox is often rooted other kinds of experiences. “People get to that point from very different trajectories,” said Boerner.

The Gerontology Institute Blog asked members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston to describe their transition into the earlier stages of older life and how they felt about it. Their responses illustrate just how different those trajectories can be. Continue reading

Gerontology PhD Candidate Natalie Pitheckoff Examines Bonds Between Older Adults and Animals

Natalie Pitheckoff with her rabbits

Natalie Pitheckoff with her rabbits, left to right, Gizmo, Sir Ziggy and Madame Bushwick

Call it the Domino effect.

Natalie Pitheckoff, a gerontology PhD candidate at UMass Boston, has spent years observing and studying the impact of pets on older adults, particularly those with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Her proposed PhD dissertation  involves analyzing the policies and practices of nursing homes when it comes to human-animal interactions.

Pitheckoff was recently awarded a dissertation grant to support her work from the UCLA Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Small Grants Program. The program is funded by Bob Barker, the retired television game show host and long-time animal rights supporter. Continue reading

Institute Talk: A Conversation About Retirement Insecurity with Katherine Newman

Katherine Newman, the interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, has devoted much of her career to documenting conditions facing poor and working-class Americans. Her new book, Downhill From Here, Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality, examines the perilous state of retirement in the United States. Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman recently talked with Newman about the dangers facing the pension system, Social Security and other forms of economic support for Americans as they grow older. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

 Len Fishman: Your book reads in part like a post-mortem of the defined benefit pension system. Defined benefits provide a fixed pre-established benefit for employees at retirement, usually based on length of service and salary. They hit their high-water mark in 1980 and then plummeted. What happened?

Katherine Newman: Union density began to decline sharply at the same point. The defined benefit pension system is very much a creature of the collective bargaining power of unions. That’s why defined benefit systems tended to exist mainly where there were unionized workers. And as union density slipped — in part because of deregulation and industry competition – the strength behind the defined benefits began to shrink. Today, a very small minority of Americans have what we would call true pensions – 401(k) plans are definitely not pensions in terms of security and employer responsibility for investment. Continue reading

UMass Boston Gerontology PhD Alum Elizabeth Chen Named State Secretary of Elder Affairs

Elizabeth Chen came to the field of public health later in life. She’s been making up for lost time ever since.

Chen, who had been the chief executive of two companies and a leader in higher education, came to the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2012 as a gerontology PhD student at the McCormack Graduate School. She received her degree in 2016, completing the program faster than any student in UMass Boston history.

Now Chen is about to lead the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker named Chen to succeed Alice Bonner as the next Elder Affairs secretary. She officially starts her new job June 3.

“We welcome the expertise and knowledge that Dr. Chen will bring to Elder Affairs as the new secretary and look forward to the hard work she will do to build on the progress achieved under [Bonner] that made Massachusetts an age friendly state,” Baker said. Continue reading