Professor Edward Miller Recognized with the 2021 GPD Award for Outstanding Student Mentorship

Edward Alan MillerEditors note: This story was originally produced by the McCormack Graduate School and appeared on the UMass Boston News web pages.

The study of aging and the practice of mentorship have many things in common – perhaps none more pronounced than how each pursuit emphasizes the personal journeys and the interpersonal relationships we forge and foster along the way. At the McCormack Graduate School, our collective commitment to public service, reflected in interdisciplinary education and cutting-edge research, is a shared endeavor to understand and remedy some of the most crucial social, political, economic, and environmental issues of our time.

To age is to grow together. For Eddie Miller, professor and chair, Department of Gerontology, previously the graduate program director (GDP) of the PhD Program in Gerontology for 8 years, that has meant playing a role in shaping many milestones and meaningful moments with students throughout his career. Miller’s approach to teaching and mentorship was celebrated when he was selected to receive the 2021 GPD Award for Outstanding Student Mentorship, one of the four awards presented by the Dean’s Office Student Success (DOSS) during the recent End of Year Celebration and Award Ceremony – a well-deserved recognition of the role he plays in supporting students and their successes. Continue reading

A COVID-19 Response: Intergenerational Tutoring Program Matches OLLI Members, Young Children for Online Learning

Mike McCormick was talking about the unlikely meeting of a bumble bee and a bear.

Actually, he was reading aloud about characters featured in a children’s book. McCormick was connected online via Zoom with a boy of kindergarten age who followed along with him. They could see each other, as well as an electronic version of the illustrated book that highlighted printed words as they were spoken.

An image from the book "Let's Bee Frriends"

An image from the online version of the book “Let’s Bee Friends.”

McCormick, a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston, wasn’t reading with a grandson or anyone he had even met until recently. He was participating in an innovative pilot project initially developed to help two kinds of people who often struggled with the limitations imposed on daily life by the COVID-19 pandemic – young children and older adults.

The intergenerational tutoring project is managed jointly by the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University’s Bouve College of Health Sciences and the Gerontology Department at UMass Boston. It started small this spring with five students and is gearing up for a second, bigger phase intended to reach 10 times as many students.

The ultimate goal is to create a refined model that helps older adults connect online with children for educational purposes on a much larger scale across the country. Project leaders believe the program can deliver online experiences that will remain valuable well after the COVID-19 threat has fully passed. But it was the shock of the pandemic that first got the concept off the drawing board and onto screens. Continue reading

Journal Special Edition Continues Examination of COVID-19 Impact on Older Adults, Caregivers

Edward Alan Miller

Edward Alan Miller

The devastating impact of COVID-19 on older adults is hardly news now, but researchers around the world continue to provide new insights and perspective on the deadly pandemic.

A new special double edition of the Journal of Aging & Social Policy contains 17 articles highlighting some of that work. Contributions to the issue, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Older Adults: Experiences, Impacts and Innovations,” include seven articles reporting on original empirical research as well as 10 more offering commentary and perspective regarding the impact on older adults.

“We need to fully understand the myriad of ways in which COVID-19 affected older adults, their families, communities and caregivers,” said Edward Alan Miller, the editor of JASP and chair of the Gerontology Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“The articles in this special edition provide important information and perspective – from across the country and around the world — that can help us draw lessons for aging policy and practice going forward,” said Miller. Continue reading

A Busy Summer: Fellowship Gave UMB Gerontology PhD Student a Role in Boston’s Efforts to Back Housing With Services for Older Adults

Setarreh MassihzadeganHow can cities analyze the costs of providing supportive housing for older adults and evaluate proposals from developers seeking municipal support?  The not-so-surprising answer: It’s complicated.

Ask Setarreh Massihzadegan, who began her second year in UMass Boston’s Gerontology PhD program this month. She spent the past summer working through exactly that challenge.

While completing her first year as a PhD student, Massihzadegan applied for the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston’s Public Policy Summer Fellowship. The program led her to a position at the Neighborhood Housing Development Division within the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND).

The job: A deep dive into the operating expense details of affordable housing plus services for older adults in Boston. Massihzadegan researched those operating costs, then created a descriptive analysis of her findings to support DND’s process of evaluating developer requests for support and to inform future underwriting policies at the department.

She also provided recommendations that led to changes to the city’s annual Request for Proposals covering housing development assistance this year. Continue reading

New School Year, New Leadership at UMass Boston Gerontology Program

Gerontology students at the University of Massachusetts Boston are returning to school, greeted by some familiar faces in new leadership roles.

Professor Edward Alan Miller is the new chair of the UMass Boston Gerontology Department, succeeding professor Jeffrey Burr. Professor Jan Mutchler has become the new director of the Gerontology Institute, taking over for the retiring Len Fishman.

Professor Kathrin Boerner is the new Graduate Program Director for the PhD Program in Gerontology and the MS in Gerontology Research/Policy, a position Miller had held for eight years.

Edward Alan Miller

Edward Alan Miller

Miller is beginning his role as department chair by welcoming about 50 PhD students and more than 100 master’s and certificate students in the Management of Aging Services program to a new school year. Six new PhD students in the program come to UMass Boston from Ghana, Kenya, China, South Korea, California and New Hampshire.

“I’m honored that my colleagues chose me as the new chair of the Gerontology Department,” said Miller. “I’m excited by the opportunity to further elevate UMass Boston as a leading institution addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by an aging population.” Continue reading

Gender and Money in Later Life: How Older Women Face Greater Economic Insecurity than Men

Most older women spent their working lives behind the economic curve. They were typically paid less than men when at work and more likely to provide family care that reduced employment opportunities.

Their economic situation doesn’t improve in later life. Lower Social Security and pension benefits, the result of working and earning less over decades, and the fact that women are more likely to live longer than men just extend that gender disadvantage into older age and often make it worse.

A new report by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston uses the Elder Index™to demonstrate the depth and scope of economic disadvantage experienced by older women living alone across the United States. It is documented in every state in the nation and only increases with age.

“Life-long patterns of inequality in work experiences and wealth accumulation are behind a substantial gender disparity in retirement economic security,” said Jan Mutchler, the report’s lead author and a professor of gerontology at UMass Boston. “The consequences of that disparity affect so many older women who routinely face hard choices about basic expenses they simply can’t afford.” Continue reading

The Future of Long Term Service and Supports: Centering the Voices of Older Adults in Massachusetts

The pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings of the Long Term Service and Supports (LTSS) system for older adults here in Massachusetts and around the country. Older adults have experienced higher rates of infection and death, particularly in communities of color and in areas with higher rates of LTSS use.

Robust conversations have begun among academics, policymakers, advocates and industry leaders to identify solutions to improve safety and create a sustainable LTSS system. As most impacted, older adults and family caregivers must be at the center of these discussions.

With generous support from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Community Catalyst, Massachusetts Senior Action Council and the Leading Age LTSS Center @ UMass Boston have launched a new three-year initiative, The Future of LTSS: Centering the Voices of Older Adults. This project will engage older adults and family caregivers across the Commonwealth to assure that their views guide the development and promotion of recommendations for transforming the way we provide and pay for LTSS.

Project objectives include:

  • Gaining a deeper understanding from older adults and family caregivers across Massachusetts – particularly those from historically underserved communities – of their experiences with the LTSS system (before and during the pandemic) and how the system can be transformed to better address and account for their needs, preferences and values.
  • Engage Massachusetts older adults and family caregivers as agents of change as the Commonwealth develops the reforms necessary to ensure safe, reliable and high-quality LTSS in a range of care settings that meet the varied needs of older adults and families.
  • Learning from, complementing and informing other state and national efforts to improve the LTSS system.

Project partners will conduct listening sessions as well as field a statewide survey of older adults and family caregivers, with emphasis on those from Black and brown communities. Data gathered from these activities, combined with a set of key stakeholder interviews, will ground the development of recommendations for the policy and practice change necessary to create an LTSS system that delivers high quality care to older adults and family caregivers across Massachusetts.

Project partners will then support older adults/caregiver leaders as they share their insights on LTSS reform with policymakers and the public. They will also share strategies and lessons with advocates, older adults and family caregivers working to reform the LTSS system in other states and nationally.

For more information or to participate in this important effort, please contact:

Renée Markus Hodin, Deputy Director, Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation rmhodin@communitycatalyst.org

Carolyn Villers, Executive Director Massachusetts Senior Action Council cvillers@masssenioraction.org

Marc A. Cohen, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Gerontology, UMass Boston; Co-Director, LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston   marc.cohen@umb.edu

The Pandemic’s Long-Term Impacts on Food Insecurity Among Older Adults, and the Benefit of Federal Help

A tragic aspect of the pandemic’s prolonged economic downturn – the rising rate of food insecurity in the United States – could impact older, poorer adults and their families for years to come, according to a study by researchers at the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston and the National Council on Aging.

Two groundbreaking issue briefs underscore the long-lasting effects of pandemic-related food insecurity among older adults, especially older women and people of color.

The research suggests that while enhancements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were likely effective in temporarily decreasing pandemic-induced food insecurity among vulnerable older adults, the increased SNAP benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan need to be made permanent and reflect increased food costs to overtake the growing number of older households expected to face food insecurity. Continue reading

Reach Out and Get in Touch: a task force’s mission in Massachusetts

In “Reach out and get in touch: a task force’s mission in Massachusetts,” our Dr. Caitlin Coyle spoke with the New York Times about the Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community, the Commit to Connect campaign, and social isolation before, and during, the pandemic.

“Reach out and get in touch: a task force’s mission in Massachusetts” is Copyright © 2021 The New York Times

Q&A with Jo Owens, author of A Funny Kind of Paradise

Jo Owens became a nursing home aide in Canada out of a need for money, and came away with her calling. And from that experience, the pain and the human glory, came her debut novel A Funny Kind of Paradise, set in a Canadian nursing home.

The Vancouver Sun wrote “Owens…captures the skill and tenderness of caring for someone at the end of life in direct and unvarnished prose…Each [care aide] …is richly drawn and complex… [and the novel] serves to illuminate a vital profession that has been rarely documented in fiction.”

“Her writing is richly informed by her 20 years working as a care aide in Victoria, British Columbia,” said interviewer Len Fishman, head of the University of Massachusetts Gerontology Institute. And their conversation continues from there. Thanks to Taryn T. Hojlo for the interview transcription.

Author Jo Owens

LF: Let’s start by asking why you became a care aide and what’s kept you in that profession for 20 years?

JO: Actually, desperation drove me there. Much like Molly [a character in the book], an aide suggested that I take this job and that I would be good at it, and I absolutely needed money. That got me over the initial stages when it was terrifying to be doing something so new. What keeps me at it is that I have a calling for this work. I definitely ended up in the right place.

LF: The book’s narrator is Francesca, or Franny. She’s in her late sixties, and a stroke has left her unable to move, walk, talk, or eat, but Franny’s cognition is completely intact. Tell us more about her, and let’s start with you reading a passage.

JO: [reads from A Funny Kind of Paradise – youtube link]

“Franny says, ‘The stroke has left me emotionally labile, and the feelings I’ve struggled so hard to contain (or at least disguise in shrouds of anger) are naked for all the world to see. I literally lack the muscular strength to suppress them.

But here is the gift. I don’t care. I don’t care! My right hand is useless, I can’t speak and more people have seen my bare ass in the last year than if I was a streaker at the opera, because I need my diaper changed, for God’s sake. Do you think I care if you see me cry?’”

LF: Tell us a little more about her.

JO: Francesca was a strong, independent woman who ended up raising her two children on her own. She’s a home-based small business accountant, and she kind of came at life as though…if you attacked it with hammer, you’re going to get the job done. That’s not necessarily the best way to parent children, so like everyone else, she has her own baggage and things to think about. Originally, she was the kind of person who would say to herself, as you often hear people say, “If that happens to me, I would rather die.”

LF: She recalls a time when she accompanied her son’s class to a nursing home around Christmas time. When they leave, she tells him, “I’d rather be dead than have to live in a place like that.” Later she thinks, “I changed my mind when I came here.” What changed?

JO: First of all, I think that the will to live is extremely strong. We think that we can’t tolerate this, but it’s amazing what humans can get used to and even learn to embrace. Partly, that’s what’s going on, but also Franny was fortunate to end up in a good facility where she has loving care and she’s still engaged in life. She enjoys watching the care aides that work around her and gossip freely in front her because Franny can’t repeat what she’s hearing. She thinks about her children and she’s still engaged with her son who comes to see her. There’s enough in her life to make her life meaningful. This is my experience at work. When suffering becomes acute, residents do say they’d rather die. And we do hear that. But generally speaking, I find that people want to live. And they continue to want to live. Much longer than we’d think.

LF: Franny’s got issues – fear and anger are her “left and right crutches” as she puts it – and she’s really trying to work through them. Have you seen residents that you’ve cared for grow emotionally as she does?

JO: Absolutely. Absolutely I have seen people change and grow. We do. Our situations force us to. It was the famous psychologist, Karen Horney, who said, “Life itself remains a very good therapist.” Things happen. We’re forced to change, and life doesn’t stop because you’re forced into care. You’re still going to be changing. For Franny personally, I used my imagination obviously to create what’s happening to her, but as she thinks about what is meaningful in life, thinks about what she can change and what she can’t change – particularly with regard to her son, her missing daughter, and how she behaved in the past – as new residents come into her life, she is adjusting her thinking and she’s moving along in her mind, as people do. And yes, I’ve seen that in care.

LF: So, as you’ve mentioned, Franny’s brain is sharp and because she can’t talk the aides are actually more willing to speak their minds in front of her, even confide in her. What were you hoping we’d learn, through her, about the inner workings of a nursing home?

JO: One of the reasons I set this novel in a five-bed ward is because I wanted to be able to show Franny listening to people talking all the time…I wanted people to see how human your aides are…Every one of your [aides] comes with their own set of baggage. And I wanted to show some of the things that the care givers are trying to balance, some of the things that they have on their plate. The struggle that is part of life, trying to triage six to eight – or in worse scenarios, 12 to 14 – residents. Who eats what, who do you go to first? How can you give everyone good care, not just the ones that can speak up and demand it, but also the ones that are immobile and deserve just as much of your love and attention? I wanted to do that in a way that wasn’t completely preachy, and boring and I really hope that I achieved that goal because what happens in [nursing homes], in that private little world, is frequently not seen, and I wanted to show it.

LF: In Franny’s world, licensed nurses, whether it’s LPNs or RNs, are distant figures and doctors are almost entirely absent; it’s all about the aides. Is this what it looks like on the inside?

JO: I’m sure I showed quite a bit of bias there because I am a care aide, so I think it’s all about me [laughs]. But, in terms of the bulk of time caring, aides are the faces that the residents are going to see the most. I see my people every day, whereas the doctor might see you every two weeks if you have a problem, less if you don’t. The LPNs are going to see you every day also to give you your pills and if you have a dressing change, you’ll see them a little bit more. The RN, as I mentioned to you before, at my facility the RN has one hundred people. They’re going to deal with problems. So, it may be very difficult to even know their name. The care aide is the person that they see. I did an interview with a person in Toronto whose father was in care. He told me that the care aides became his father’s family. Even though I only know a small portion of my resident, the part that they are now – the whole iceberg of their previous life is unknown to me except for a little bio that might be done by a social worker or a family member – I have this tiny little part of this person, right? But they’re still mine. I have them every day. I know how they want their socks pulled up – do you want a little space at the end, or do you want them nice and snug? Do you want your tea spun like this or like that? They’re mine.

LF: I want to ask you about families of nursing home residents, especially those that visit frequently. What qualities do staff most appreciate?

JO: The first thing that’s coming to my mind, Len, is forgiveness. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but I want to be forgiven for my imperfections. I’m going to do the very best that I can, and sometimes it’s going to feel like it’s not enough because sometimes it’s not enough – I just run out of time. I forgot to bring your husband down for his visit, which is now going to be downstairs in the village square, or I’m not able to brush your family member’s teeth, their hair isn’t…Yeah, I want to be forgiven for the fact that I can’t do a perfect job. Maybe other care aides would speak differently.

LF: Two aides in your book are talking about the difficult daughter of one of their residents. The mother is pretty difficult, too. And one aide sums up her philosophy as follows, “If we only looked after the people who deserved kindness, it’d be a skinny job.” This is a telling commentary on the challenge of being a good caregiver, so tell us about it.

JO: This reminds me of a fridge magnet I once saw that said, “The staff are human and will react unpredictably when abused,” as opposed to being a robot. Every healthcare worker has a right to be treated like a human being. We have little signs in our elevator saying that if you don’t treat the staff with respect, you will be required to leave. But the people that I’m working with are emotionally labile and sometimes they have difficulty controlling any number of their emotions, whether it’s anger or frustration or – sometimes they yell at us, sometimes they hit us.

LF: In recognizing the time that we’re living in, in the U.S., residents account for about 40 percent of COVID deaths nationally. In Canada, the percentage is even higher. It seems to me that this hasn’t caused as much of an outcry as one might expect. What do you think?

JO: So, this is a question I was asked in the NPR interview and so I gave it a lot of thought, Len, because I had difficulty answering it. And here’s the reason I had difficulty: I do not want to contribute to our phobia of death. There is a time when it is good to die. At the same time, how we treat the more vulnerable members of our population during a pandemic is a measure of our integrity as a society. It’s really important not to get the idea that any group in our society, whether it’s their age, their ethnic background, their financial worth, their sexual orientation, that that group is in any way disposable, because that’s the kind of thinking that Hitler had. It is not acceptable.

LF: What do you want people to know about your job?

JO: Well, I was hoping that with my book I would be able to increase empathy for the people that live and work in care. But what would I want them to know? We’re here and we’re alive and just as important as anybody else – really that’s the only message.