Expanding the Conversation about Aging

Many issues facing older adults intersect with other social inequalities, but experts often fail to keep the experiences of historically underserved communities in mind when discussing aging.

Since 2020, the MIT AgeLab’s Aging and Equity Speaker Series has sought to bring together researchers, advocates, and practitioners who aim to understand how aging-related issues affect a broad array of communities.

“We think it’s important to offer a platform at MIT that amplifies the work of researchers who are thinking about issues like intersectionality and identity across the lifespan as people age,” says series co-coordinator Taylor Patskanick, who is a researcher at the AgeLab. “We’re highlighting people who have dedicated their careers to doing work with vulnerable older adults.”

Since the series began in 2020, speakers have hosted conversations on topics like diversity in financial planning, climate and sustainability, and equitable design of new technologies. Others have presented work on the social determinants of health for aging Latin Americans and measuring livability with different communities.

The Aging and Equity series typically holds events each quarter. Speakers have come from national universities, nonprofits such as AARP, and organizations like the architecture firm DiMella Shaffer. Patskanick says one aim in recruiting speakers is to highlight researchers and practitioners who are early in their careers.

Attendees are often members of the MIT community, including students, faculty, and alumni. Some sessions have attracted hundreds of registrants, including many from outside MIT.

Early last year, an event on climate change and health featuring Latrica Best, an associate professor at Boston College, attracted MIT researchers and students as well as older adults concerned about their grandchildren’s future. Older attendees said the talk encouraged them to explore how they might engage in climate activism locally.

Another event featured Philippe Saad, co-founder of LGBTQ Senior Housing Inc. and principal at DiMella Shaffer, who walked through his organization’s creation of the first LGBTQ-friendly housing development in Boston for older adults, known as The Pryde.

The series has helped the AgeLab consider new issues to explore in their research. For instance, Patskanick says sessions have promoted conversations among AgeLab researchers about representation in their studies and how they sample different identities and populations of older adults.

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    Four headshots in a row

    Speakers from MIT AgeLab's 2023 Aging & Equity Speaker Series. From left to right: Latrica Best, Shinae Choi, Philippe Saad, Robin Brewer

“The series has enabled us to think about how equity comes up in our projects,” Patskanick says. “We’ve done some work on older adults and vaccination, for instance, and after an aging and equity session we hosted, we ended up adjusting how we collected data on various subgroups of older adults that would be robust enough to allow us to look across and within different cultural identities to understand their intersection with how people make decisions about vaccinations.”

The series has also given AgeLab researchers new ideas for inquiry.

“The series has helped inform research questions for us about how people across a greater variety of backgrounds plan for retirement and make financial decisions,” says Sophia Ashebir, who manages the series with Patskanick. “We’ve taken a more nuanced approach in terms of how we think about and measure income, for example.”

With every event, the speaker series contributes to a more inclusive understanding of the issues surrounding older adults, which harkens back to the founding mission of the AgeLab.

“The mission of the AgeLab, put roughly, is to make older people’s lives better,’” Ashebir says. “With this speaker series, we’re trying to amplify the voices of marginalized groups and draw light to new research and initiatives within the field of aging. I think those goals go hand in hand.”