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

Jan Mutchler to head UMass Boston Gerontology Institute

Professor Jan Mutchler, a faculty member at University of Massachusetts Boston for more than 20 years and the founding Director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging (CSDRA), has been appointed director of the Gerontology Institute at the university’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

Jan Mutchler

Prior to founding CSDRA (located within the Institute) in 2012, Mutchler served as Graduate Program Director, Chair of the Gerontology Department, and Associate Director of the Institute. Her scholarship has focused on diversity, inequality, and disparities in aging, seeking to strengthen scholarship and its impact for our growing and diverse older population.

Mutchler produces the national Elder IndexTM, a one-of-a-kind, county-by-county measure of the income needed by older adults to maintain independence and meet their daily living costs while staying in their own homes. The Congressional Budget Office cites the Elder Index as the only retirement adequacy measure that is oriented specifically to older people and takes into account the unique demands of housing and medical care on older budgets.

Under her leadership, the CSDRA and colleagues across UMB also recently issued a report, “Aging Strong for All: Examining Aging Equity in the City of Boston,” documenting disparities across three dimensions that impact quality of life — economic security, health, and social engagement. The report aims to inform the City’s public agencies, businesses, cultural, educational, and religious institutions, and community groups as they seek to change policy and practices to enhance the quality of life for Boston’s older residents.

Mutchler received her B.A. degree from the University of Mississippi and her doctorate from the University of Texas Austin. She takes over for Len Fishman, who announced his retirement earlier this month after serving seven years as director of the Institute.

Mutchler has been highly successful in growing the center and has been a trusted resource and counsel for state policymakers and community leaders. A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Service in 2016, McCormack Graduate School Dean David Cash said Mutchler embodies the program’s ethos of scholarship, public service, and student engagement through research and teaching.

“Gerontology and the study of how to improve aging in America and around the world is at a critical juncture, and Jan’s leadership at the Institute ensures that the institute will catalyze a new era of cutting-edge research and impact on policy makers,” said Cash.

“The work of the Gerontology Institute is critically important, especially in this post-pandemic era,” Mutchler said. “The experiences of older people during the pandemic have highlighted the importance of research, policy and advocacy focusing on aging. At the same time, our work seeks to recognize and address the detrimental role racism plays in making growing old especially challenging in some communities. The work that our students, faculty and fellows do on a daily basis aims to identify strategies for improving quality of life for older people and promoting aging equity, both at home and around the world.”

The Director is responsible for guiding the Gerontology Institute and its four centers as leading international research, policy, and service centers focused on aging. By enhancing the impact of research and service activities carried out through the Institute’s Centers and by its more than 50 fellows, the director pursues opportunities for McCormack and the Gerontology department’s faculty and students, as well as strengthens collaborations with external partners, with the goal of increasing the impact of their work and promoting better and more equitable outcomes for older people, their families and communities.

Under Mutchler’s leadership, the Gerontology Institute will work to continue its upward trajectory in external funding and to strengthen its scholarship, public engagement, and visibility as a national and international leader in aging research and service to older populations. These efforts will encompass the Gerontology program’s efforts to expand its work at the intersection of aging, race, and anti-racism aging policy. Combined, these efforts will strengthen the Gerontology Institute and Department’s ability to attract and support faculty working in these areas, and help train diverse students from communities under-represented in the ranks of researchers, policymakers and advocates for all aging populations.

About the Gerontology Institute

Created by the Commonwealth in 1984, the Gerontology Institute provides research, education and public service in the field of aging. Four centers bring special expertise in targeted areas. The Pension Action Center has recovered over $65 million for low and moderate-income retirees whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. The LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston works to improve the quality and effectiveness of services for seniors across the continuum of housing and health care services. The Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging conducts research in collaboration with government agencies and NGOs, and produces the Elder Index which measures the true cost of living for older adults in the U.S. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute provides 140 courses to 1000 older adults in Greater Boston. The Gerontology Institute is located within the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

WISH Act and UMass Boston’s Marc Cohen Hope to Transform American Elder Care

Marc Cohen and other academics and policy analysts saw the writing on the wall years ago. With roughly 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, a decades-old medical and financial storm is now on the horizon when it comes to how to provide and pay for long-term services and supports (LTSS) for elders.

The number of family members available to care for aging relatives is dwindling, most families can’t afford the time or expense of caring for an older relative, and divisive, uncompromising politics in the United States – despite these long-approaching clouds – have done little to tackle the issue head on. More than half of us will need LTSS in old age, yet less than 10 percent of us have insurance to help cover the costs.

“Everyone in their gut knows that there’s this issue out there,” said Cohen, co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center at UMass Boston, and research director of the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation at Community Catalyst. “But very little has been done about it.”

Marc Cohen, PhD

Marc Cohen, PhD

Cohen and his peers spent years working on an idea first put forward by academics and researchers that were part of the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative, and then expanded on this idea in a paper presented at the Bipartisan Policy Center. At times, their suggestions gained traction, but not among the people who mattered most – the politicians who could enact legislation.

On June 30th, New York Congressman Tom Suozzi, a Democrat representing sections of Long Island and Queens, introduced the Well-being Insurance for Seniors to be at Home (WISH) Act, which addresses how to finance long-term care for older adults, the first new solution put forth in almost a decade.

“With the number of disabled elders expected to double in the coming years, fewer family caregivers are available for these aging Americans, and the market for long-term care insurance is not currently sufficient to address these demographic challenges,” Suozzi said in a press release when the legislation was released. “The WISH Act would save the Medicaid program and millions of Americans from financial ruin, would allow people to age at home with dignity, and would create millions of good-paying, middle-class jobs in the home health care industry.”

Private and public interests had always stood in the way of past legislation aimed at this issue. The WISH Act attempts to overcome this divide by creating a public-private partnership based on social insurance for catastrophic LTSS expenses, coupled with family help, savings and private long-term care insurance for early up-front costs.

The idea is that such a comprehensive insurance solution – built on well-defined public and private roles — would enable older adults to stay at home if they wish instead of needing to deplete their and their family’s life savings and enter Medicaid-funded nursing homes or access more limited Medicaid-financed home care services.

In addition, the legislation is aimed at helping low-income individuals and their families whose savings are often devastated when a loved one requires long-term care, forcing many to make tough decisions about work and incomes versus their relative’s long-term care needs.

In mending this dangerous trend, the legislation would also promote health equity by providing a financial parachute to those families that would suffer most under the current system – a system which leaves the Medicaid program financially stretched and unable to meet the needs of its beneficiaries and pay rates necessary to support a high-performing workforce.

Cohen also views the legislation through a feminist lens. For decades, working women – who are the primary family caregivers of disabled elders — have been forced to weigh their careers and income versus staying at home to care for an elderly relative. If successful, the WISH Act would empower more working women to stay in the workforce, because the costs associated with bringing in home care aides, for example, would be paid for through the insurance program.

The legislation would create a new Long-Term Care Insurance Trust Fund that would be used to pay for the “catastrophic” period of long-term care for adults requiring many years of help. At the same time, the legislation would have private insurance companies offer affordable coverage plans for older adult’s initial years of disability. And it would be paid for with a social insurance contribution by all workers and their employers, each contributing about 0.3 percent of wages.

The legislation was largely inspired by the 2018 paper written by Cohen, Judith Feder of Georgetown University and Melissa Favreault of the Urban Institute. Their work was funded in part by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

The way that work came about mirrors the political headwinds the WISH Act legislation will face on a very divided Capitol Hill.

“We went back and forth for two years,” Cohen said. He came to the issue with a perspective shaped by his work with the private insurance sector, while Feder came from the public policy side, a big philosophical divide concerning what private industry and the government could and should do when it comes to such a challenging and difficult issue like long-term care financing.

“Very early on when we butted heads, we both agreed that we would not let “the enemy of the good be the best” and that ideological purity would have to be put aside so that we could focus on a practical solution that could do a lot of good,” Cohen said.

Their paper was published in January 2018, got some attention, but then languished until just before the pandemic hit in 2020. In late November 2019, Dr. Joanne Lynn, a geriatrician and hospice physician who is a senior analyst at Altarum and who was working at Congressman Thomas Suozzi’s office, invited Cohen to fly down to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Congressman and his team, where the initial sketches of the WISH Act were discussed. Throughout 2020 and the first six months of 2021, there were multiple meetings which were led by Dr. Lynn responding to concerns of stakeholders and dealing with the minute details that come with developing a new and major piece of legislation.

After a career spent touting the rationale for such legislation, this was the first time Cohen played a direct role in helping to shape legislation. “During that process it became clear to me that this is not a rich versus poor or Democrat versus Republican issue, but rather, a human issue that affects us all and really needs to be addressed,” Cohen said.

100th Dissertation Celebrated by UMass Boston’s Gerontology Program

One in Five Gerontology PhDs are earned at UMass Boston

Krystal Kittle, PhD

The Gerontology program at UMass Boston (UMB) has recognized a significant milestone: its 100th dissertation defense. With the COVID-19 pandemic still requiring most academic work conducted remotely, Krystal Kittle defended her dissertation over Zoom. Her thesis advisor, Professor Kathrin Boerner, attended the online event as well other committee members, faculty, fellow students, and staff to show their support and celebrate her accomplishment.

Established in 1989, the UMass Boston Department of Gerontology is one of the world’s oldest and most recognized programs studying aging across the lifespan. Globally renowned for its multi-disciplinary curriculum, exemplary research and accomplished faculty, one in five gerontologists with a doctorate earned their degree at UMass Boston. The program is also home to the Journal on Aging & Social Policy and Research on Aging, both peer-reviewed journals edited, respectively, by UMass Boston faculty Edward Alan Miller, PhD, professor and doctoral program director for the department and Jeffrey Burr, PhD, professor and chair of the department.

“Doctoral education takes a commitment to the field and a willingness to sacrifice,” says Burr. “Our alumni exemplify dedication, perseverance, and passion for research that makes a difference in society. As we mark this milestone, we celebrate the hard work of our graduates, and the impact they make in the world.”

Jeffrey Burr, PhD

UMass Boston gerontology alumni have been major contributors to the strong international reputation of the program. They live and work across the globe, including in Canada, China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, and across the U.S. Alumni work in a variety of healthcare settings, for local, state, and federal agencies, not-for-profits that address aging issues and as faculty, researchers and administrators in universities.

“Between the first dissertation defense and the 100th, our students have produced many innovative, cutting-edge research projects and publications in scholarly journals,” says Miller. “They add significantly to the knowledge base on aging, while informing practices and policies that impact older adults, their families and communities.”

Kittle, from California, was the first person in her family to go to college and the only one to earn an advanced degree. She chose to attend UMass Boston’s gerontology program because of its high graduation rate which, she reasoned, meant a supportive and patient faculty. Kittle said she was impressed with the collegiality among the program’s tightknit community of students and faculty.

“The endurance required for a doctorate is considerable,” she says. “The UMB faculty saw something in me that inspired me to keep going.”

Kittle’s dissertation centered on the healthcare of older LGBT adults and “The Role of Minority Stress, Sociodemographic Characteristics and Social Resources.”

“I was a little nervous, but more excited to share what I had worked so diligently on for so long,” she says.

Edward Alan Miller

Edward A. Miller, PhD

Kittle joins an engaged and respected group of professionals. In a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of the program’s 100 doctorates shared how their degree had shaped and supported their career goals.

“My multidisciplinary training from UMB prepared me to be an effective collaborator—one that weaves together the expertise and perspective of colleagues towards a shared purpose,” noted one alum. “[My training] helped me develop extensive knowledge and hands-on skills in conducting qualitative and quantitative research studies that makes a real impact on the care and life of vulnerable and frail elders,” wrote another alum.

Identifying their current professional roles, alumni reflect the wide range of career opportunities available to gerontologists. These prospects are anticipated to increase as older populations are expected to outnumber younger populations in most countries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in every five residents will be retirement age by 2030. By 2034, there will be 77 million Americans 65 years and older and 76.5 million Americans under the age of 18.

“One highlight of faculty life is maintaining relationships with our graduates as they progress in their careers,” says Burr. “We see them at conferences, collaborate on research and welcome their return to campus as guest lecturers.”

After she successfully defended her thesis, Kittle was told she had earned the program’s 100th doctorate. She said it gave her a strong “sense of pride for the program. It felt as if I had come full circle. It was a testament to the commitment that the faculty makes for their students.”

In April, Kittle begins work as a postdoc research fellow in the Social and Behavioral Health Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health. The focus of her work is Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias among LGBTQ middle-aged and older adults.

Pension Rights

Help is available to secure your pension

Whether your retirement is close at hand or years away, you’re likely counting on savings and other income sources you’ve maintained to provide you with a comfortable and secure life after working for years. If you’re counting on a pension, take steps now to make certain it’s in place and available when you decide to retire.

A defined benefit pension is a retirement plan that may provide monthly income for the rest of your life. Pensions are sponsored by your employer and provided to you based on your years of service, compensation and other factors. Unlike a 401(k), the employer bears all of the risk and responsibility for funding the pension plan. But, employers can make mistakes.

Take the case of William, a Pension Action Center client.

William worked for a company outside of Chicago off and on for about 20 years. He had two breaks in service that resulted from factory-wide reductions in force. After the first layoff, he was recruited back, because the factory needed someone with his specialized skills. When he was laid off again, he had worked about 12 years in total, and was fully vested in the company’s pension plan.

In the mid-1980s, the company that owned the factory decided to close it down permanently. The company again recruited William back to help with the closure. He understood that his brief return would increase his pension benefit at retirement.

But the employer made a big mistake. When personnel matters were wrapped up for the remaining factory employees, William’s service credit for his pension was recorded based on his short return to his employer to close down the factory. The employer did not credit him with the 12 years of service from earlier in his career. As a result, William was not included on the list of employees who had earned a pension. Continue reading

Book Investigates the Pandemic and its impact on Older Adults

Journal of Aging and Social Policy special edition examines scope,
impact and lessons drawn from Covid-19 for older adults

A special double-issue of the Journal of Aging and Social Policy (JASP) that focused on Covid-19 has been released as a book. “Older Adults and Covid-19: Implications for Aging Policy and Practice” provides 28 articles written by leading gerontology researchers. The authors offer perspectives from around the globe on a host of issues surrounding the virus and its impact on older adults, their families, caregivers, and communities.

Edward Alan Miller

Editor-in-chief Edward A. Miller

Originally published in June 2020, this issue’s release as a book by Taylor & Francis Publishing indicates that the critical questions raised and the policy changes proposed to protect this vulnerable population moving forward deserve continued attention.

“This book is important because nearly everything addressed in the special issue six months ago is still relevant today which reflects poorly in our response as a nation,” said Edward Alan Miller, PhD, a professor at UMass Boston and editor-in-chief of JASP.

As Miller points out in the book’s introduction, older adults have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Exposure to the virus has resulted in older adults dying in disproportionately higher numbers, especially in long-term care facilities. Government-mandated actions to lessen the impact of the virus on older adults have had adverse consequences such as increased social isolation, separation from family members, enhanced economic risk, and challenges getting basic needs met. Continue reading

Remembering Frank Caro: Inspiring Leader and Key Figure in Development of UMass Boston Gerontology Program

Frank CaroBy Len Fishman and Jeffrey Burr

The field of gerontology has lost a pioneer with the death of Professor Emeritus Frank Caro, an inspiring and beloved figure at UMass Boston. He died on October 2, at age 84. Frank was an architect of one of the world’s most influential gerontology programs. More than that, he was its heart and soul.

Frank wore many hats at UMass Boston, a former director of the Gerontology Institute and chair of the Gerontology Department in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. He also helped found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston and the Management of Aging Services Master’s program.

Frank is remembered as a consummate scholar-administrator in the field of higher education. He guided the Gerontology Department through its early years with a steady hand and a determination to make its educational programs excel. He deftly mentored many doctoral students and junior faculty members during his years on our campus. Beyond his many great professional achievements, he was known for his kindness, thoughtfulness and humility. Continue reading

The Makings of a Mentor – Meet Ellen Birchander

This article originally appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.

We all take different paths in life and, if we’re lucky, we have mentors guiding us along the way. As an undergraduate psychology major, 20-year-old Ellen Birchander was on track to fail her journalism class unless she completed an upcoming article assignment. She was directed by her professor to open the yellow pages and interview someone listed as a contact in the first advertisement she saw, which happened to be Greater Lynn Senior Services. Her assignment not only received an A but led to the first job she’d have in the field of aging.

Out of this serendipity came a passion for the work of aging that developed and evolved over the next 40 years. Birchander went on to lead the development of programs and delivery of services for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, where she served as Assistant Secretary for Programs. Now, after making a career transition from public affairs to public education, she is teaching, mentoring, and co-directing the Management of Aging Services (MAS) Graduate Program in the Department of Gerontology. Continue reading

Beth Dugan on COVID-19 in Aging Populations: “Older People are Part of the Solution”

This conversation with Gerontology associate professor Elizabeth Dugan was conducted by the McCormack Graduate School and  first appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.

Q: Can we start by talking a bit about the aging population in Massachusetts and how it’s similar or different from other places facing the COVID-19 crisis?

Beth Dugan:  I would say overall, we have more positives to work with. Here in Massachusetts, we have more than a million people who are 65 and older, so we have more older people than other states. And one thing that’s interesting to think about is that longevity is a new experience in terms of human development. We’re about the first or second generation where most people could expect to live to old age. Continue reading

Gerontology Associate Professor Kathrin Boerner: Dealing with Grief After Death


UMass Boston Gerontology associate professor Kathrin Boerner has spent much of her career researching a wide range of end-of-life issues. She was recently interviewed by MyRoche, a publication of the global health care company Roche Holding AG, about her work. The following transcript of the interview with MyRoche editor-in-chief Rebekka Schnell was first published in January.

Q: Why are you so focused on death?

 Kathrin Boerner:  Many people do indeed ask me about my concern with such depressing matters. But I don’t see it like that at all. I work on a topic that affects everyone, and that’s what makes it so relevant. What is more, it is fantastic to see the capacity people have to cope with terri­ble loss, and to help those who aren’t doing so well. Continue reading