Gero-punk Lexicon: Gerontology

First, let’s begin with a little quiz. (Though if you are quiz-averse, a short-answer essay question is available.)

Gerontology is:

a)      The scientific discipline concerned with the history of the earth as recorded in rocks.

b)      That new rock band from France.

c)      A very common but under-diagnosed phobia whereby one is afraid of people over the age of 30.

d)      The totally cool multi-disciplinary field concerned with the biophysical, cultural, psychological, spiritual and social aspects of adult development and aging.

e)      All of the above.

f)       None of the above.

(Here’s a hint: The correct answer is “d.” By the way, you can earn extra credit if you can distinguish between “Gerontology” and “Geriatrics.”)

Next, let me acknowledge (in case you are wondering) that I know one can’t just go around claiming that something is “totally cool” without being prepared to provide specific evidence as to why something is totally cool, especially when that something is an academic and professional field like Gerontology. I mean, it is one thing to say that a rock band is cool, or a movie is cool, or a particular book or professor is cool, but it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that the study of adult development and aging is cool.  As such, allow me to outline the finer points of my claim to being involved in one of the coolest fields of study and practice there is:

  • The older population (persons 65 and older) is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population – as a result there are many needs and opportunities now and in the future for knowledge production, advocacy, and service provision.
  • In the historical landscape of the Human Scientific disciplines, Gerontology is a relatively new academic and professional field that is in the process of developing itself in real-time– As a result there is the potential to get in on “the ground-up” and participate not only in socially and personally important and meaningful work, but the creation of Gerontology itself.
  • Of all the social categories, “old person” is one of the only categories (besides Human Being) each and every one of us will occupy, should we be so fortunate to live the long life most of us in the U.S. (and increasingly across the globe) can expect to live. Some social categories, such as ethnicity or race, can’t be changed; some social categories are mutable but only as the result of great effort and commitment, such as gender identity, education level, and class.  But many of us will get to experience becoming an “old person.” (As such, there’s a tremendous, largely unacknowledged and un-harnessed opportunity for developing and expanding empathy and compassion and solidarity across all social categories and generations based on our shared aging journey and potential for becoming an “old person”!)
  • Adult development and aging are multifaceted, complex processes: individual, bio/psycho/social/spiritual, historically contingent, and taking place within particular socio-cultural-political contexts. As such, Gerontology is a multifaceted, complex field of study and practice. Many other academic disciplines, fields of study, and professional areas are incorporated into Gerontology or can be used as lenses through which to view the human aging experience: psychology, sociology, geography, epidemiology, nursing, social work, history, philosophy, economics, anthropology, political science, literature, to name twelve! (As such, there are many different “styles” of being a Gerontologist, depending on which aspect of the aging experience you are interested in studying and whether you want to teach, do research, design programs, create policies, provide care, advocate…the possibilities are fantastic and endless.)
  • And, here’s the most important reason of all, as far as I’m concerned: The questions that drive Gerontological inquiry and practice are fundamentally questions about what it means to be a human being—The grand, surprising, ultimately unfathomable adventure involved in our precious human existence, however long it may last, however it may unfold.

(Gero-punk disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive list—it is just a start, a prolegomenon  (a preliminary discussion about some provisional ideas)! And, also, don’t be thinking that I’m so in love with Gerontology that I’m blind to its challenges and limitations, nor ignoring questions as to its usefulness, legitimacy, not to mention its very future as a field. I’m not. Ask anyone, I talk about this stuff a lot of the time. But that’s not what I’m talking about right now. Maybe another time. For now, let’s appreciate the beautiful, aspirational, well-intentioned Gerontology! Hooray!)

About Jenny Sasser

I am currently Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past fifteen years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (7th edition). I live in Portland, Oregon with my daughter Isobel Coen and our dog Happy. I have been on the planet 46 years.
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One Response to Gero-punk Lexicon: Gerontology

  1. extrapurpose says:

    I’ve always, secretly thought of gerontology as totally cool, but you put that into words, Jenny. And I especially like the concept that it is evolving real-time. How great for us who are here, right now! I also like what you say “whether you want to teach, do research, design programs, create policies, provide care, advocate…the possibilities are fantastic and endless.” Awesome, and so true!!

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