Washington People: Nancy Morrow-Howell

Gerontology expert works to understand 'whole picture' of aging

“There’s so much right now that’s in transition, it’s a really interesting time to be studying gerontology and aging,” said Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging. (Credit: James Byard/WUSTL Photos)

Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, is a national leader in gerontology, widely known for her work on productive and civic engagement of older adults. She is the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at the Brown School, faculty director of productive aging research at the Center for Social Development and director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, part of the Institute for Public Health, all at Washington University in St. Louis. A member of the faculty at the Brown School since 1987, Morrow-Howell discussed her work on aging, why it’s such a critical area and how the field has evolved since she began her career.

How has your view of aging and aging research changed as you have gotten older?

It’s certainly interesting to be experiencing what you have studied. I started studying gerontology and aging in my 20s. Now that I’m 63, it’s funny to be walking the walk — just like everyone eventually will. Aging is one of the few areas of study where, if you are lucky to have a long life, you will experience what you research. I have appreciated the insights that I’ve gotten about some of the topics, as I begin to experience them, not just with myself but with my family members. And I think I’m a more experienced teacher and researcher now that I’m older.

Why study aging? What do we as a society gain from researching the aging process?

Aging is biological, it’s psychological and it’s social. A lot of things about aging are socially constructed. Humans invented that 65 was some magic line, and you are suddenly “old” after that. We’ve constructed some of our visions and attitudes about aging. There is biological aging that scientists have long been trying to understand, but the psychological and social aspects of aging are in transformation right now. We’ve never lived 20 or 30 years after we got dubbed “older.” There’s so much right now that’s in transition, it’s a really interesting time to be studying gerontology and aging.

You’re co-teaching a course for undergraduates called “When I’m 64.” What kind of feedback are you getting from students?

I’m so glad the university is doing this course. There are many undergraduate courses around the country on issues of aging, but we are one of the few that focuses on freshmen, to set the stage for not just their academic work, but their personal lives as well. I taught the course with Brian Carpenter (PhD, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences) and Susan Stark (PhD, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis), and we took two approaches. One was personal. We dealt with how today’s college freshmen can save enough money to last until they are 90. How will they change their communities so that they can maximize their chances of living where they want to? How are they going to be caregivers when their parents need help? We also focused on the professional. In this country, we need to populate a number of different professions to focus on the aging population. We need more students to choose careers in aging. The theme for the course was “Aging: It’s personal. It’s professional. It’s your future. Transform it.” They’d better get a handle on this or they will be living with the same outdated social and physical structures we are dealing with now.

How did you get involved in the study of aging?

I was in the area of mental health as a practicing social worker after my Master’s of Social Work degree. I went back to (University of California) Berkeley to get a PhD. In my first semester, when I was trying to determine my focus, I was fortunate enough get a position with a research project studying issues in services to older adults. I saw the potential of aging research and what needed to be done. And I was sold.

How has the field changed over that period of time?

It has changed quite a bit. We’ve always “medicalized” aging. We see aging almost as disease. In the beginning, we studied nearly everything negative about aging, from nursing homes to depression to incontinence. And rightly so. These are big problems for many older people. But people finally began to realize that those issues don’t define the older population. And we began to study older adults in new ways. We look at how they are working longer and more involved in community engagement and volunteerism. The tenor has changed to focus on the whole picture of aging, not just the negative aspects of aging. It’s been quite transformative, even in my brief career.

Is 80 the new 60?

No! (Laughs) I would say that 80 is the new 80! Saying that 80 is the new 60 implies that younger is better. That’s not necessarily true!

What is the mission of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging?

The Friedman Center focuses on a wide variety of issues of aging and older adults. It’s under the Institute for Public Health, which provides a nice perspective for aging, as there are a lot of public health issues that are important to keep in mind when we think about aging societies. Those include age-friendly communities and healthy lifestyles for older adults. Our job at the center is to bring exposure to all the aging research being conducted at both the Danforth and Medical campuses and to increase that research, as well as classes and other projects. We want to bring a higher profile to all aspects of aging at the university. We also have an international mission. Chancellor (Mark S.) Wrighton is dedicated to developing international aging scholarship through the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. We are working with the 28 McDonnell partner institutions to develop cross-national aging research and education.

What projects are you working on now?

As we are moving from a deficit perspective on aging to an asset and strength-based perspective, one part of that has been the development of a national movement called Encore. The aim of this movement is to use the skills of older adults to help improve communities. As part of that effort, the university has been selected by an organization called Encore.org as one of the few places in the country to have an Encore Fellow. Karen Sanders has been hired to help promote the idea of socially meaningful work in the later part of life and the possibility of an “encore” career for older adults. In fact, serving as a fellow is part of her encore career. The program is focused on providing advice, training and support to older adults seeking an encore career, and I’m thrilled that our university in participating.