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Thursday, August 06 2015 15:57

Most people who know MIT associate it with sciences such as physics and chemistry or maybe engineering and economics.  But relatively few members of the general public are aware of this university’s activities in aging.

Since 1999, MIT has promoted studies of gerontology in a variety of subjects. Its work, under the title AgeLab, has produced findings of wide interest to those in the field.

This work has been headed by Joseph Coughlin, a faculty member who first saw what could be done. Coming originally from the field of engineering, Joe by now has established a wide reputation for his insights into issues concerning the elderly.

Last month, for instance, he was a chief speaker in Stockholm during the week’s events preceding the awarding of the Nobel Prizes. He was a keynote speaker, and also heard from others about scientific and cultural perspectives on aging. 

Through the years, I have had the pleasure of attending several conferences sponsored by AgeLab. The scientists who have presented at these gatherings have made me aware of new possibilities in the lives of older people.

A recent AgeLab newsletter has alerted me to some further research carried out by scientists connected with this organization. Though much more than can be presented here, certain findings have suggested how to think further about growing older.

A recurring topic in the newsletter is “Driving Miss Daisy.” For Joe Coughlin, automobile travel for elders is of central importance. AgeLab has been concerned with this subject almost from the beginning.

 As he sees the purpose of improving the driving of older people, Joe wants to help them with better technology. Miss Daisy - - named for the play and film  - - is a driving simulator that helps researchers understand the hazards facing older drivers.

The newsletter also cites several findings focused on life changes in the forties, fifties, and sixties. The researchers examined the strategies used by each age group to remain resilient in the face of life challenges.

There is not space here to discuss these strategies in detail.  Let me simply call them responses that loomed large in my own mid-life development and still do in my old age.

Several coping strategies were cited by the AgeLab and another agency. The first is physical activity. As one who exercises virtually every day of the year, I can testify to its importance.

Respondents also mentioned the support of friends and family. I place major importance on these connections too.

Writing about one’s experiences was also found useful.  I agree - - as you will know if you are reading this.

AgeLab scientists have also recently initiated a series of discussions with community members over age eighty-five. The topics thus far take in: age-friendly design, care giving, mobility, financial decision-making, health and well-being.

Were I to join this group, I would immediately have trouble grasping what age-friendly design means for us elders.  I suppose it means living with objects and spaces that please us and promote our safety as we continue to age.

For myself, I seem to be doing fairly well as I am. But let me mention another item not cited. That is the way growing older makes me so much colder than I used to feel.

I often think about my grandmother, who used to turn the thermostat in her house to a higher level than I could bear. Many years later, that has become my own challenge.

One final subject mentioned in the newsletter concerns trust. At a recent scientific meeting the following: issue was discussed: “How trust affects tech adoption and use in dementia care, self-reports on health, literacy processes, and general wellbeing in older adults.”

The terminology is opaque to me; but the underlying concern seems fundamental.