Hug a Gerontologist: We are Having an Identity Crisis

Screenshot-2018-3-21 Keep Calm and Hug a Gerontologist T-Shirt
This is an actual t-shirt you can buy from

Please hug a gerontologist next time you meet one. I do mean a gerontologist, not a geriatrician. I do not mean to not hug a geriatrician. Go ahead and hug them too if it feels right. I have some friends who are geriatricians and they are, for lack of a better term, “the cat’s pajamas”.  What I mean is that gerontologists, specifically, need some love because we are having an identity crisis.

How do I know this? Here is some evidence.

Almost every time I meet someone and tell them I am a gerontologist they ask me medical questions and where I see patients.  You see, I am often mistaken for a geriatrician, who is a medical doctor specializing in the health of older people. I make it very clear to people that I am not a medical doctor. In fact, I have anxiety that I am going to be speaking at a workshop one day and someone is going to yell “Is there a doctor in the house?”  People will point at me, and I will not be able to help as I have no medical training. Yes, it is true. Gerontologists generally do not have medical training, unless they are also physicians, nurses, or other medical professionals.  Do we have some knowledge of the medical aspects of aging? Sure. Just as we have knowledge of the psychological, biological, social, and spiritual aspects of aging. We are trained to think broadly about the aging experience.

This leads me to another aspect of the identity crisis. It is sort of our fault.

You see, we have really not done a good job of explaining who we are. We really have not owned the uniqueness of gerontology as different from other disciplines that study aging. Lots of other fields of study focus on aging, like psychology, biology, social work, etc. And it can be quite confusing because a psychologist can also consider herself a gerontologist, or a nurse might be a gerontological nurse. Sometimes I am not sure if we know who we are. And I think this had led to missed opportunities in how gerontology as a study and practice can truly be something different.


I realize that no one is asking me to be the Leader of the Gerontologists, but in the spirit of being heard, I think we need a revolution in the field of gerontology, and it starts with reclaiming and re-framing our identity. This is important because the paradigm of aging needs to change. When I say the paradigm needs to change, I am not talking about “those people” need to change. I am talking about all of us, even gerontologists. Perhaps, as gerontologists, we need to be leading the way. However, in order to do this, we need to articulate and embrace our identity, and it needs to reflect a different paradigm of growing older.

In my mind, gerontology is unique because it is the multi-dimensional view of growing older. The very nature of this recognizes that growing older is complex and individual. The idea of gerontology as multi-dimensional, complex, and individualistic needs to be clearly articulated, and operationalized through education, research, practice, and policy in aging.

We are an important companion to our great sister, geriatrics, which also seeks to integrate various aspects of medicine and wellness. To that point, promoting and emphasizing gerontology as a non-medical study of aging is an opportunity that we need to claim.  Because so much of aging is viewed through a medical lens, the field of gerontology is positioned to offer a wider lens of aging by continually trying to understand the multi-dimensional experience of  growing older and applying this knowledge in supporting people to live fully.

Gerontology is about the lived, individual experience of growing older. This is inherently person-centered. This means that central to gerontology should be the voices of people growing older. This also means that we have to take a good look at the “expert culture” in gerontology that positions professionals as holding more knowledge and power than elders, and possible discounting what is important to people as they grow older. Are gerontologists truly “experts” in aging? Or, do we simply offer a perspective of growing older?  What is our role? Are we facilitators of all these dimensions in the multi-dimensional, individual experience of aging? Is our job to infuse this into everything we do?

I have an idea that maybe helps us to think about this. I have a new definition of aging that I have been mulling about.

Aging is the process of becoming oneself.


If that is true, then gerontology is the study of becoming oneself as we grow with age. When I think of the idea of becoming oneself, it means both evolving, which is continually becoming something new, and rooting, becoming even more deeply who you are. In some ways, then, could gerontologists be midwives of growing older? In fact, a definition of midwife is “a person or thing that produces or aids in producing something new or different”. Gerontologists could be those people who “midwife” the experience of aging as a multi-faceted, individual experience, by viewing all aspects of a person. We could bring the lived experiences of individuals who are growing older to everything we do.

I think it is time for gerontologists to really think about who we are. Maybe even to challenge who we have become and whether it is who we want to be. We have such an opportunity here, to midwife, in so many ways, something new. But it would help us if we had hugs.



A Story of Mine to Share

One of my oldest memories of my grandmother is when she was sick.   My mom says she was sick for about eight years before she died and I was eight when she passed away so she must have been sick the whole time I knew her.  I don’t think I realized how sick my grandmother was. I remember she did not go out of the house a lot.  She spent most of her time cooking, it seemed.

In this particular memory, she was crying and she said to me, “Sonya, do you want to see how they are hurting me?” And she showed me her arm, which was bruised and had a small wound from a blood test.  I didn’t know who “they” were but imagined them to be pretty horrible. In retrospect my grandmother had a great sense of humor, sharp and somewhat teasing, so I don’t know if she was teasing me.  I remember her smock that day – the blue one with the patches of flowered fabric.  I especially remember the way her hands looked. They were worn and veined, but always soft from the Crisco she used for, well, everything she cooked. She was sitting in their kitchen, which is where I always remember her. I remember her being small and fragile and soft-stepping.


Yet I also know she was strong and resilient and solid. I remember that she SAW me.

When my grandparents died, I was very worried about them. They died almost exactly two years apart and I imagined they were in heaven together, but I was not sure. As the good Catholic School student that I was, I prayed for them every night. I believed that I could talk to them in my prayers so every night I spoke to them in my prayers.  Naturally, they did not answer back, but I felt that they could hear me and it comforted me.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course in group therapy techniques.  During one of the classes we discussed how people achieve closure upon the death of a loved one and how therapists need to be aware of how this need may manifest.  Our professor described how after his father died he had dreams of a figure who represented his father (it was actually the character played by Jimmy Smitts in the TV series “NYPD Blue”) and this represented needed closure for him.

A few weeks after this class I had a dream.  I woke in one of those groggy states in which what just happened in your brain is still so new and incredibly, heartbreakingly real. In my dream, my grandparents came back to me.  They came to see me at my age, which at that time was about 26.  When my grandmother saw me in my dream, she just cried. Then they told me that they were okay and they were obviously together.  They gave me gifts – gifts inappropriate for that time and my age, gifts for a child.  But I loved them. They gave me a few coins and some trinkets.  My grandmother told me, “I am so sorry that I missed all these years of yours. I am so sorry that I missed you growing up.”


I had felt for many years that I never fully had closure from their deaths.  And this dream gave me a sense of peace because my grandmother was able to see me now and because I knew that she also missed me as much as I missed her.  It gave me tremendous peace to know that they were together and are whole.

Death can be scary to a child, but my parents were very open about it. They demystified it for me. They told me it was a part of life. They told me that my grandmother would always be with me. And she is. She is a part of who I am. And that is why the telling of this story is important. Because it is MY story. It is who I am.

We all deserve to tell our stories.


“Stories must be shared. We live alone, we die alone, and we write alone. But a journey that is not shared is a poorer one. To be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ by others defines identity. The process does not end at a certain age. Something is added to my life if someone, with an open mind, listens to my story, hears my music, and sees what I have created.”

Written by Ragna Adlandsvik, a Norwegian educator who created writing groups for elders, and quoted from the book “Narrative Gerontology in Research and Practice” by Kate de Medeiros (pg .25)

More about this soon…..