Many of the doctoral students who have worked with Jan Mutchler over the years tell her they came to gerontology one of two ways—either they were close to a grandparent as they were growing up, or they worked with older people in a nursing home, a senior center, or some other setting and were inspired to do more.
Mutchler, PhD, a professor of gerontology and director of the Gerontology Institute, admits that she came to the field far more pragmatically. She was nearing the end of her sociology doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin when one of her advisers suggested she extend her work on intergenerational families to look at aging. That paper led to her first R01 grant, a competitive funding award from the National Institutes of Health that she won while holding her first academic appointment at Pennsylvania State University.
Nearly 40 years and two universities later, Mutchler’s contributions to gerontology are substantial. A sociologist and demographer by training, she brings those lenses to her work, which focuses on inequalities—gender, income, race, and more. Since joining the UMass Boston faculty in 1999, Mutchler has created the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, under which she produces the Elder Index, a widely cited tool that measures the income older adults need to meet their basic needs, county by county across the United States.
Her applied research has broadened in recent years as the CSDRA has grown and more communities across Massachusetts and New England have sought assistance with planning for growth in their older populations.
“The initial expectation with CSDRA was that we’d produce applied research as a resource for communities. That work has really expanded, leading us to better understand what happens in communities to enrich the lives of people who live there. This understanding has supported our expanded work in age-friendly communities,” she says. Mutchler and her team conduct surveys, focus groups, and other qualitative studies to help communities understand who their residents are and what resources they want and need.
“It’s interesting and gratifying work,” she says, “and it’s become a real area of expertise for us.”
Always the pragmatist, Mutchler remembers thinking initially that if she could work with three communities a year, she could fund two doctoral students. This past year, led by research fellow Caitlin Coyle, PhD ‘14, CSDRA has contracted with 11 communities and employed four undergraduate interns as well as a handful of graduate research assistants.
Through the CSDRA projects and scholarly work with her gerontology colleagues, Mutchler has devoted a fair amount of her time to mentoring students. Working side by side with doctoral students on applied research, she trains them especially in the practical side of how to work with stakeholders.
“I’m always amazed by our students and what they go on to do,” she says. “People come to our program with all of these talents and experiences, and a passion for the study of aging. For so many of our students, it’s clear they are going to do great things, they just need the skills, frameworks, and support to develop into strong scholars.”
Mutchler has formed numerous partnerships over the years, positioning UMass Boston gerontologists as principal investigators for initiatives and research projects—most recently with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, National Council on Aging, The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation, AARP, the City of Boston’s Age Strong Commission, and Point32 Health Foundation. By the end of the year, she expects to have updated the Elder Index with 2022 data.
The Elder Index tells the story of economic inequality in hard numbers—including that in 2020, 5 million older women living alone (54 percent) had incomes that left them economically insecure. Two million older men living alone and more than 2 million older couples faced the same predicament. It’s a story Mutchler finds herself telling stakeholders and reporters repeatedly. “People think that Social Security and Medicare are sufficient to support financial security among older people, but that’s a false story.”
What concerns her the most, having studied the economic security of older adults for many decades, is “the level of inequality that we have in this country. Everything that we see—that our life expectancy is not as high as other countries, that we have a tremendous burden of disease, the level of homelessness among older adults—these are all stories of inequality.” Over years of monitoring the data, “the gaps are growing in some areas and shrinking in others,” but generally the state of inequality for older adults in the U.S. remains at unacceptably high levels, Mutchler says.
She can take some comfort in knowing that clear data presentations can lead to policy change. As the Congressional Budget Office wrote in 2017, “The Elder Index allows researchers to tailor the adequacy measure to the elderly while still providing a relatively simple way to evaluate retirement security.” The National Council on Aging recently launched an Equity in Aging Collaborative, using the Elder Index as a tool to fuel dialogue about the true cost of aging and influence policies that affect older adults.