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

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.

Valued Partnership

Internship benefits housing provider and doctoral student while supporting older adult residents

When a Boston-based affordable housing developer wanted to survey their residents to better support their health-related needs, they paused. What did they know about approaching older adults to inquire about their personal healthcare?

“We’re developers and project managers, not social workers or healthcare providers,” says Amarillys Rodriguez, Development and Policy Project Manager for the Planning Office for Urban Affairs (POUA). “We needed to bridge this gap and have the kind of expertise on hand to help us better understand our residents.”

Elisabeth Stam, gerontology doctoral student

POUA reached out to the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and the two organizations created a graduate assistantship. The opportunity allowed one doctoral student in UMass Boston’s distinguished Gerontology program to help POUA move forward on its Health & Housing Initiative while gaining useful work experience.

A social justice ministry of the Archdiocese of Boston, POUA has more than 3,000 housing units located in Eastern Massachusetts. About one-half of these apartments are homes for older adults. POUA wanted to learn about these residents’ health needs to better serve them by providing support such as preventive care. To accomplish this, POUA decided to develop a voluntary, confidential survey to collect demographic information and information about health conditions, insurance coverage and healthcare provider relationships.

“If we gather this information, we’ll be able to identify any patterns or clusters of particular issues to pay attention to and create on-site, health-targeted resident services,” says Rodriguez.

Elisabeth Stam, a first-year doctoral student studying Gerontology at UMass Boston, began her internship with POUA in the fall of 2020 continuing through the Spring 2021 semester. Among her responsibilities was helping to develop and structure the survey to describe respondents’ health needs. Having someone with an understanding of gerontology and knew how to word questions so residents felt comfortable to participate and respond, was key to a successful survey, notes Rodriguez. Continue reading

Transforming the Future of Aging

Bei Wu works toward improving health status through research and policy

If the world of academic gerontology had a rock star, it would be Bei Wu, MS ‘97, PhD ’00.

Recognized for her extensive research and pursued by top tier universities, Wu has become an international leader in the field since graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Gerontology. Add the years in policy work before earning her doctorate and Wu chuckles that, having spent more than half of her life in the field of gerontology, she herself is now experiencing the aging process.

“I’ve become my own study subject,” Wu says.

Today, Wu is the Director of Global Health and Aging Research at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and Director for Research at the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing at New York University (NYU) and the inaugural co-director of NYU’s Aging Incubator, a university-wide aging initiative.

Given her considerable success in gerontology, it’s fitting she credits her grandmother — with whom she was extremely close — for nudging her into the field. Born in Shanghai, Wu’s parents left her and her brother in their grandparents’ care when the two were young. After college, Wu accepted a research position with the Shanghai Commission on Aging only after prompting by her grandmother.

“At the time, very few people thought aging would be a challenging issue in the future,” Wu says.

But writing policy briefs and launching studies on intergenerational support with the United Nations Population Fund convinced Wu to pursue graduate studies. With no options available in China, she chose UMass Boston.

“UMass Boston has had a significant impact on my career,” Wu says. “The gerontology program has a critical mass of excellent faculty.” Continue reading

Gerontology MAS Student Kate Martin’s Quest to Improve Care Access for Vulnerable Patients

Kate and Michael Martin, with parents Thomas and Susan Martin

Kate and Michael Martin, foreground, with their parents, Thomas and Susan Martin.

By Taryn Hojlo

Kate Martin and her family were exasperated. Her older brother, Michael, desperately needed professional care to help manage his health and daily needs. But there were few providers in Las Vegas who accepted Michael’s insurance, and even fewer who seemed capable of treating him with the same dignity and respect that other patients received without a second thought.

After a lifelong struggle with epilepsy, Michael had considerable physical and intellectual impairments. Although his condition made him eligible for Medicaid, finding local services that would accept it proved to be a struggle. Those that did often neglected to treat Michael as an individual and failed to involve him in the management of his own care. There were times when Michael wasn’t even addressed during his own appointments.

“He struggled pretty significantly with access to care and getting what he needed,” says Martin, a family physician who will be graduating from UMass Boston Gerontology’s Management of Aging Service masters program later this month. Continue reading

The Virtual Semester: How UMass Gerontology Students are Adapting to Remote Learning While Campus Remains Closed

Claire Wickersham home office

STEP INTO MY OFFICE: Author Claire Wickersham turned her bedroom closet into a phone booth-sized office with a standing work station.

By Claire Wickersham

Students are making a lot of adjustments in the spring semester driven online by the COVID-19 pandemic. New technology and different work environments bring a whole new meaning to work and home life balance.

The good news: Many are adapting well to new ways of learning and working, often adding an element of creativity to the process.

For UMass Boston gerontology students, some classes are held in real-time via apps like Zoom, while others are recorded. Some use PowerPoint with voiceovers for slides. Assistantship work is being done off campus and meetings held virtually.

Some students have even gone home for the remainder of the semester. Continue reading

Zoom Boom: Gerontology Department Moves Online to Conduct 5 Virtual PhD Dissertation Defenses in 4 Days

The new dissertation defense (pets welcome): Clockwise from top left PhD candidate Hayley Gleason defending her dissertation, professor Edward Miller, associate professor Kathrin Boerner, PhD student Molly Wylie, LeadingAge LTSS Center @Mass Boston co-director Robyn Stone and Brandeis University professor Christine Bishop.

Years of work, study and preparation came down to this final step: Defending PhD dissertations to a series of faces on a computer screen.

Conversing with images of people, arranged like tiles on an electronic board, had become a suddenly familiar experience for millions of people as Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms replaced live gatherings amid the growing coronavirus threat. No doubt many PhD dissertation defenses took place that way as campuses shut down across the country in March.

But the UMass Boston Gerontology Department’s busy schedule put that virtual work-around to a serious test: Five remote dissertation defenses in a span of four days. Three of them took place through the morning and early afternoon of a single day.

PhD candidates Andrea Daddato, Danielle Waldron and Hayley Gleason all defended their dissertations on March 31. Yijung Kim followed on April 2 and Haowei Wang defended the following day. All were successful. Continue reading

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Busy Gerontology Students Mixed Work with Pleasure

Summer is history.

Most of UMass Boston’s gerontology students enjoyed the vacation break and hopefully some even found their way to chairs on a beach. But many also worked on gerontology research projects, attended professional events or participated in fellowships at some point during the summer.

Haowei Wang, Adrita Barooah and Nidya Velasco Roldan all attended the prestigious RAND Summer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. All said they had become interested in the institute based on recommendations of others. In particular, Sae Hwang Han and Yijung Kim had both traveled from UMass Boston to attend the institute the previous summer.

“It was a great opportunity to network and meet new people,” said Barooah. “Compared to a lot of big conferences, the RAND institute was more personal, which helped me get to know fellow attendees and their work better.” Continue reading

Study Examines Impact of Medicare Purchasing Program on Skilled Nursing Facilities Serving Vulnerable Populations

What happens when the government decides to reward skilled nursing facilities that perform better and penalize others that don’t do so well? The early results were not good for facilities that primarily serve vulnerable populations.

A new study led by Gerontology Institute Fellow Jennifer Gaudet Hefele looked at first-year results from the Medicare Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) Program that provides bonus incentives and payment penalties to facilities based on performance. The research, recently published in Health Affairs, found facilities serving vulnerable populations got fewer bonuses and were subject to more penalties. 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