Back In My Day: The world of gerontology is making its mark

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Last week, Provost Charles Zukoski announced that Keck School of Medicine Dean Laura Mosqueda would be stepping down from her position to help drive “efforts to expand and advance geriatrics at the University.” 

I had the opportunity to hear from the Keck dean during the early stages of USC’s response to the coronavirus pandemic last semester, when she gave a presentation to my “THRIVE: Foundations of Well-Being” class. 

Mosqueda reassured us over Zoom of the University’s then-newly implemented safety protocols and wished us a safe conclusion of the spring semester, albeit virtually, encouraging the importance of well-being when adapting to a new learning or work environment. 

Being a second-semester freshman and having had my year cut short by the pandemic, her sentiments deeply resonated with me. However, I felt thankful that I had the opportunity to hear from a role model about her work in a field that I hold so close to my heart. 

For many USC students, that presentation may have been the first time the word “geriatrics” crossed their mind. Gerontology, in short, is the study of older adults and all facets of aging across the lifespan. But did you also know that the University actually has its own college dedicated to just that? In fact, that very college has entire programs dedicated to gerontology for undergraduates, post-doctoral students and everyone in between.

If you’ve ever had the chance to swing by the corner of campus near Parkside International Residential College and the Viterbi School of Engineering, you may have noticed a strange-looking building with a cute little fountain and some transparent glass walls.

You probably wondered, “Huh, this is probably part of Dornsife or something like that — maybe even Viterbi.” Or, quite frankly, you probably didn’t think much about it at all and just continued on your way, concerning yourself with more important things on your agenda. Nonetheless, that building was the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in all four floors of its glory. Rivaling Dornsife with a less than 1% admissions distribution for undergraduates in the 2023 class, the Leonard Davis School hosts one of the smallest undergraduate populations in the University. 

However, what we lack in numbers, we make up for by popularizing and amplifying gerontology in the world of academia. I always like to say that our school of gerontology is the best in the world, to which I am often met with the response that we‘re the only gerontology school in the world. While that’s certainly a topic for another time, there are plenty of other reputable gerontology programs and departments around the world (I’m looking at you, UCLA). 

Yet our faculty and staff continue to push the boundaries in the field of aging, from perfecting the online curriculum in the development of the first online gerontology degree program to drastically improving the lives of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s through world-class research. 

Gerontology is a fairly new and young field — ironic, I know — and a long ways away from being a well-known area of specialization in the medical field. That being said, the world’s older population is rapidly growing, with the National Institutes of Health predicting more than 1.6 billion older adults by the year 2050 — more than 17% of the world’s population. Significant advances in remote telemedicine, health promotion and preventative care all contribute to the increasing population of older adults. 

In an interview with the Leonard Davis School last year, Mosqueda perfectly described the core of geriatric medicine and gerontology. “Geriatrics is not what you think of when you think of a heroic specialty. So it just doesn’t have the same kind of oomph and excitement that other specialties do,” she said. “But once you get in there, and you do some house calls, and you meet people who are 90 to 100 years old and hear their stories. For me, that’s very inspiring.”

It is exactly this — sharing lessons and stories of the past along with caring for some of the most vulnerable individuals of our society today — that is the heart and soul of gerontology. There really isn’t anything glorious or romantic about it — I mean, you tell me the last time you saw a geriatrician on a hospital soap opera (with the exception of George Shannon, an associate professor in gerontology who starred in such hits as “General Hospital” and “The Young and the Restless”). 

On that note, studying aging doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around physical changes to the body; we also evaluate social work and public policies that concern the lives of older adults. There’s so much to learn and understand about the later stages of the human lifespan, not only to benefit today’s group of older adults but also to set the foundation of what older age will or should look like for generations to come. 

We work to understand the changes that the human body goes through with the goal of tracking and identifying ways to make the later stages of life even just a tad better than it was for previous generations. Especially now amid the coronavirus pandemic, gerontology has become a medical focal point as governments and facilities try to find new ways to assist older adults now physically distancing from loved ones and coping with social isolation. 

From tackling ageist microaggressions to understanding how we can help older adults in the coronavirus era, this column will highlight some of the advice from gerontology faculty, researchers and students studying all things to do with aging. 

Now, as I aspire to be an inspirational geriatrician like Mosqueda, I took up the challenge of writing this column to spread awareness about older adults and the challenges they face today in the digital age. Back in their day, life looked very different than how it does now and, likewise, the future will have changed drastically from what we consider to be the norm by the time we hit our later stages in life — so much so that we’ll be looking at the world around us, saying “back in my day…”