INTERVIEW: Jeannette Franks, Gerontologist (Part 1)

Last September I published a guest post by Jeannette Franks, a gerontologist in Washington State, in which she wrote about traveling with her dad, who had dementia., Her inspiring story reaffirmed my commitment to provide information to help adult children travel with their parents (or grandparents, even!).

Jeannette Franks logoJeanette Franks received her doctorate from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, where she has taught courses on ethics, grief and loss, geriatrics, and gerontology. She speaks often on retirement options (her Ph.D. dissertation was a definitive guide to independent and assisted living titled Washington Retirement Options), disability issues, and end-of-life issues. Although she remains very involved in the field, this year she is semi-retired (and not teaching) while traveling the world with her husband.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jeannette Franks about her travels in general, the trip with her dad, her recommendations on traveling with an older parent, and what initially drew her to gerontology. I found the interview incredibly enlightening on numerous levels and hope my readers do, too.

 

Valerie Grubb (VG): What motivated you to go into the field of gerontology?

Jeanette Franks (JF): I was working with an older population in the 1980s, doing community services for the blind. I found out the vast majority of them were lower-income elderly women whose real needs lay not in their vision-loss issues but in their aging issues. The last years of life are incredibly important. I changed my path, went back to school, and got my Ph.D. I just felt that the beginning and the end of life are really important. We quite rightly pay a lot of attention to early childhood, but I think the last years of life are incredibly important as well. Yet they are not well-attended to.

 

(VG): I see a huge difference in attitudes toward the elderly between America and Asia, where I’ve traveled with my mother quite extensively. In Newark, people would run her over without a second glance, but in China people who clearly cannot speak English will help her. What do you think is the reason for that?

(JF): I’ve pondered that question as well. There are a number of different reasons. Asian cultures treat age with more reverence, as do the Suquamish [a small Native American tribe in Washington state with whom Franks works].

I think the dominant culture in the US has a prevalence of ageism. It’s no longer acceptable to be sexist or racist, yet ageist jokes are still okay. People don’t think twice about making an ageist joke and disparaging older people.

It’s not a compliment to say, “Oh, you look so young!” It’s a compliment to say, “Oh, you look great!” People try to look younger by dying their hair instead of recognizing that grey is the new blonde. It’s a badge of honor to have grey hair!

People can be healthy and attractive at any age, and to put the emphasis on youth is really kind of insulting. Take birthday cards in the supermarket: when people start turning 40, 50, or 60, the cards for those ages are so insulting and can be really nasty. Why would you give a card like that to a friend?

 

(VG): What do you find most interesting about your work?

(JF): One of the wonderful things about studying aging and older people is that this field is changing so dramatically. In the last century, we’ve added forty years to the average lifespan! People are so much healthier and so much more productive and prosperous now.

When I first started studying aging among people during the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were all these horrible statistics about the percentage of the population that was going to be disabled and riddled with chronic disease as they aged. But things have instead gotten a lot better—today there’s less disability, for example, and a lot less heart disease. People have paid attention to nutrition and exercise—things that really promote aging well. It’s just a whole new ballgame. It’s fascinating that the predictions for aging are much more optimistic than those from even just twenty years ago.

 

(VG): What do you find most challenging about your work?

(JF): Getting younger people interested. In the field of social work, everyone wants to work with teenagers or people on drugs or pregnant teenagers on drugs. So getting people interested in the field of gerontology is a challenge. There’s a real need out there. Older people greatly outnumber teenagers, and I think it’s hard to get young people to realize that they, too, will someday be old. (And a lot of things don’t have to be age-segregated anyway. For example, there is drug abuse in every age group.)

It’s important not to compartmentalize older people into any stereotyped group. Lots of people say, “I love old people! They’re so sweet!” or “I hate old people! They’re so crabby!” The longer people live, the more they differ—and the less likely they are to fit stereotypes.

When human beings are first born, they tend to fit within certain parameters of normalcy. For example, we have a pretty good idea of when average babies usually start walking and talking. As people age, though, they have greater variability. Rather than becoming more alike or fitting into some stereotype or commonality, older people become more variable. Whether you’re looking at cognition, personality, physical abilities, or other characteristics, the longer people live, the more they differ—and the less likely they are to fit stereotypes.

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It’s amazing how much understandings of aging have changed in recent years, isn’t it? Tune in tomorrow to see what Jeannette Franks has to say specifically about aging and travel!