From Maxwell Perspective...
Improving With Age
The study of gerontology at Syracuse — including research done in Maxwell’s Center for Policy Research — has gotten a boost with a new Aging Studies Institute and a named professorship. Already prominent, SU’s gerontological programs are poised for growth and greater recognition.
By Renée Gearhart Levy
In 2011, the oldest of the baby boom generation - the 78 million
Americans born between 1946 and 1960 - began turning 65. Those
boomers are expected to live longer than any previous generation of
Americans. In fact, the entire world population is growing older,
the result of declining birth rates and increases in life
expectancy. The number of people in the world over age 60 is
expected to triple by 2050.
The health and finances of that aging population will have major
social, cultural, and economic consequences on everything from the
housing market and labor force to the viability of programs such as
Social Security and Medicare.
• Merril Silverstein
• Interdisciplinary by NatureThe implications raised by this demographic shift have spurred
creation of Syracuse University's new Aging Studies Institute
(ASI), which raises the profile of SU scholarship related to aging.
For 40 years, that scholarship had been conducted through the
University Gerontology Center, one of the country's oldest
university-based gerontology programs. The Gerontology Center,
which was based in Maxwell's Center for Policy Research, has been
absorbed by the ASI. Its director is sociologist and demographer
"Everyone associated with the ASI is motivated by a concern
about the growing proportion of the population that is older," says
Wilmoth. In addition, she says, many ASI affiliates study
marginalized and disadvantaged populations. "There is interest in
the safety net of public programs that facilitates well-being in
ASI will promote aging-related research, training, and
outreach. Its thematic areas include age-based public policy and
well-being; population aging; health and functioning; family
dynamics, care work and intergenerational support; and aging
design, engineering, and technology. The institute also is home to
the Center for Aging and Policy Studies (CAPS), one of 14 centers
funded through the National Institute on Aging's Demography and
Economics of Aging Centers program. CAPS supports pilot projects
related to the demography and economics of aging.
“It is a marker not only of faculty expertise in this area but also of institutional priority.”
— ASI Affiliate Gary EngelhardtFor example, Douglas Wolf, who directs CAPS, is involved in a
national study of disability, care needs among the elderly, and
family decisions regarding care-giving. Economist Gary Engelhardt
is interested in the impact of pensions, Social Security, and
annuities on retirement saving and income security. And sociologist
Christine Himes looks at ways obesity influences health in later
"All of these issues have policy implications," Wilmoth says.
"ASI and CAPS are engaged in disseminating information about the
policy implications of gerontological research." For example, ASI
organizes the annual Syracuse Seminar on Aging, at which a
prominent scholar presents on a policy-related topic, then produces
a policy brief. CAPS hosts a biennial Gerontology Education
Workshop, where faculty members from across the United States learn
about policy issues and research that can be incorporated into the
gerontology curricula at their home institutions.
Unlike the Gerontology Center - which connected SU faculty
members who were otherwise spread across campus - the ASI will have
a physical headquarters, in renovated space in Lyman Hall. Next
January, 11 of ASI's affiliates will move there, including the six
scholars from Maxwell who are profiled on the following pages.
(There are, in total, more than 30 scholars at SU affiliated with
the institute from programs in the colleges of arts and sciences,
education, engineering, visual and performing arts, and
"There's never been a place you could point to and say, 'There's
the Aging Center,'" says Wolf. "Having everyone in close proximity
is quite exciting."
"It will provide us with the opportunity to work closely
together to build collaborative, interdisciplinary programs of
funded research," says Andrew London, professor of sociology,
"while also providing a context for excellent graduate education
and, perhaps, postdoctoral training in aging-related issues."
Creation of the ASI is a symbol of SU support. "For the
University, it is a marker not only of faculty expertise in this
area but also of institutional priority," says Engelhardt. "It's a
way of acknowledging strong faculty in aging studies and attempting
to externally elevate the role of Syracuse University in this
"People in the world of gerontology already recognize Syracuse
as a place where there are strong scholars," says Wilmoth, "but the
establishment of the ASI will take us to the next level in terms of
grant funding, external visibility, and attracting students."
Issues in Gerontology
These six Maxwell faculty members are among the
affiliates of the Aging Studies Institute who will move to its new
headquarters next year. Their research demonstrates the broad
relevance of gerontological inquiry.
Grandmothers as Caregivers
Madonna Harrington Meyer
Professor of Sociology
As demands on parents balloon, the burden of care giving often
trickles down to grandparents - typically, grandmothers.
"I think we have not really been aware of the extent to which
many middle-aged women juggle work and family," says Madonna
Harrington Meyer, who is currently writing a book on the subject,
funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging. Over
several years, she has conducted 50 interviews around America and
analyzed Health and Retirement Study data on women ages 51 to 70
about work and caring for grandchildren.
"I have seen that caring for grandchildren is joyful work," she
says. But it is work nonetheless, and leaves many older women
worn out and resource-depleted. Harrington Meyer found many of
these women use vacation time, sick time, and savings to care for
grandchildren. Many are also caring for disabled husbands and frail
older parents in addition to caring for grandchildren.
"From a policy perspective, it is clear that our failure as a
nation to guarantee paid maternity leave, paid vacation, and paid
sick leave leads many young parents to rely quite heavily on
grandparents for help with their kids," she says. "The image that
grandma is at home and has little else to do but care for grandkids
A fellow of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA),
Harrington Meyer serves on a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aging
working group on women's retirement income. Among her many
publications, her book with Pamela Herd, Market Friendly or
Family Friendly? The State and Gender Inequality in Old Age, won
GSA's Kalish Publication Award. She is editor of Care Work: Gender,
Labor, and the Welfare State.
Obesity and Old Age
Professor of Sociology; Director, Center for Policy Research
While Americans are living longer, are those later years
vigorous and healthy?
Christine Himes examines the health trends among the elderly
during an era when life spans are increasing. "We know that . . .
more of those additional years of life are years of good health
rather than poor health. But we're not really sure why that has
happened or if it will continue," she says.
She is especially focused on obesity. At a time when obesity
rates are rising in the population, Himes's research focuses on how
obesity impacts health in later life (work funded by the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services). Obesity often leads to
diabetes, of course, and diabetes dramatically accelerates the
effects of aging. With obesity on the rise, should we anticipate an
epidemic of later-life chronic diseases and other implications of
Himes has studied the effect of obesity on specific health
factors, such as a person's ability to recover from injuries or
conditions that limit activity. A recent paper in the Journal of
the American Geriatrics Society examined, for example, the
relationship between obesity and falling or fall-related
Himes serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the
National Center for Health Statistics, which provides advice to the
Secretary of Health and Human Services on issues around the
collection and use of health data. She has served as a senior
fellow of the Brookdale Foundation Leadership in Aging Program and
is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America. Along with
Harrington Meyer she is co-editor of the Baywood Publishing book
series, "Society and Aging."
Military Service and Later Life
Andrew S. London
Professor and Chair of Sociology
Janet M. Wilmoth
Professor of Sociology; Director, Aging Studies Institute
How does military service affect later life? That's a question
Andrew London and Janet Wilmoth, both sociologists and
demographers, have been tackling for the last seven years. The duo
has studied the myriad ways military service affects people's lives
over time - everything from the health trajectories of older male
veterans to the associations between veteran status, extramarital
sex, and divorce.
"We are making population-level comparisons between veterans and
non-veterans across a range of socioeconomic statuses, family, and
health outcomes across the life course," Wilmoth says of their
research, much of it focused on older adults.
The work began with a $582,000 grant from the National Institute
on Aging to examine the health of veterans in later life. Using a
large public data set for studying aging-related issues, Wilmoth
and London compared veterans with non-veterans to see how military
service affects later health. An edited volume based on that work,
titled Military Service in Lives, with contributions from other
Maxwell researchers, will be published later this year.
London and Wilmoth are now using numerous data sets to make
additional population comparisons. They recently completed a
project funded by the National Poverty Center that focused on
veteran status, work-limiting disability, poverty, and material
hardship. A paper on extramarital sex and divorce is forthcoming,
and a new study on veterans' use of disability benefits is
currently funded by the Social Security Administration.
"Our work on military service and its consequences is quite
multifaceted at this point," says London. Both he and Wilmoth
are senior fellows in SU's new Institute for Veterans and Military
Wilmoth, a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, has
published also in the areas of older adult migration and living
arrangements, health status, and financial security. She is engaged
in a pilot project with Penn State's Martin Sliwinski through CAPS,
developing methods of collecting information from older adults on a
daily basis to assess their health and activities. "Most
assessments are done less frequently," she says. "The idea is to
develop better measures of how older adults are doing on a
day-by-day basis." She is also co-editing the fourth edition of
Gerontology: Perspectives and Issues, due out next year.
London's work with veterans, meanwhile, complements his broad
research interests in the health, care, and well-being of
stigmatized and vulnerable populations, including persons living
with HIV/AIDS, welfare-reliant and working-poor women and their
children, and the formerly incarcerated. Currently, he is working
with graduate students on projects that address lesbian, gay,
bisexual health disparities and transgender experiences of health
care and family life.
Saving for Old Age
Melvin A. Eggers Faculty Scholar and Professor of Economics
The aging of America raises questions about the federal
government's ability to meet the needs of an aging society
depending on Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements.
That makes Gary Engelhardt's work particularly relevant.
An expert in the economics of aging, he currently has three main
focuses. The first follows his long-standing interest in the impact
of pensions, Social Security, and annuities on the retirement
savings and income security of older Americans; this research is
sponsored by the Social Security Administration, TIAA-CREF, and the
National Institute on Aging. He's also studying the impact of the
Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit on insurance coverage,
medical expenditures, and health outcomes, work funded by the
Social Security Administration.
And this spring he began a three-year project funded by the
MacArthur Foundation that will assess the impact of access to
affordable housing on the health and living arrangements of the
elderly. "I am evaluating the impact of housing and saving policies
targeted to low-income households and the impact of population
aging on housing markets," he says.
His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York
Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and Los
Angeles Times; and on CNBC, MSNBC, National Public Radio's Morning
Edition, and American Public Media's Marketplace. He has also given
congressional testimony on the housing crisis and the tax
incentives for housing.
Gerald B. Cramer Professor of Aging Studies and Professor of
Public Administration and International Affairs; Director, Center
for Aging and Policy Studies
The diminishing ability of older adults to live independently
has not only health consequences but also economic consequences -
for families and for government.
Douglas Wolf, a demographer and policy analyst who studies aging
and long-term care, is currently on the steering committee of a
major national survey - the National Health and Aging Trends Study
- that will produce data for tracking the levels and trends in
disability of older people, along with related family, health, and
economic topics. Much of his research, funded by the National
Institute on Aging (NIA), examines patterns of disability and how
they change at the end of life.
"We're talking about people who need some sort of assistance,
usually from other people, in living independently or taking care
of themselves," says Wolf, who directs the ASI-based Center for
Aging and Policy Studies. "There's a whole spectrum of severity and
need, and I'm interested in all aspects of that process from
statistical analysis of disability data on individuals to the
collection of data."
Funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, Wolf also studies
caregivers (particularly those who are giving care to their
parents) and the factors involved in their decisions about care
giving. "The dominant theme in more than 30 years of research has
been the challenges, frustrations, burdens, and adverse
consequences faced by caregivers," he says. "I'm sort of
questioning that - not saying there aren't any adverse
consequences, but there are a lot of holes in the evidence."
Wolf, a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, has
conducted several international projects, such as an NIA-funded
study of elder care and living arrangements in America, Germany,
and the United Kingdom. A founding member of the International
Network of Research on Elder Care, he has presented at several
United Nations-sponsored lectures.
Renée Gearhart Levy is a freelance writer, specializing in higher education, based in Fayetteville, N.Y.
This article appeared in the spring 2012 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2012 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.