Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Boston College School of Social Work Associate Professor Christina Matz only had to look within her own family to realize the problems facing older adults—and be motivated to do something about it.

While she was in college, her grandfather died, after having spent practically all of his adult life as a greenhouse owner and wholesale plant and flower distributor. When Matz came home for the summer, she found her grandmother had deteriorated, becoming less active, more isolated and insular; less than a year later, she died.

Christina Matz

Christina Matz (Lee Pellegrini)

Her grandfather’s “work until you die” retirement plan, Matz adds, is the model for her father, also self-employed, and for Americans without employer-sponsored health insurance or 401(k) plans.

“Defining ‘retirement’ is one of the great struggles of our time,” says Matz, who chairs the BCSSW Older Adults and Families concentration and is a research faculty member at the BC Center on Aging and Work. “In the past, we’ve associated retirement with leisure and dwindling activity, but that’s not sustainable in an era when people are living longer. And there are questions beyond how long someone will have to work. A lot of us have stories of family members or loved ones who, when they became older, had a serious decline in the quality of their lives.

“I just remember my grandparents and think, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

These experiences and impressions have helped fuel Matz’s interest in exploring the connections between health, wellbeing, and engagement during later life. In particular, she focused on the role of social and productive activities such as work, volunteerism, and caregiving in helping to promote more fulfilling lives among people 60 or older. 

Now, Matz is involved in multiple research projects and other initiatives that she hopes will lead to a better understanding of older adults’ physical and emotional health, and policies and practices that can improve their lives.

“Not surprisingly, we tend to see aging mainly in terms of disability and decline—and death. But this population has incredible capabilities, expertise, and talents that have developed and been refined over many years. We need to drastically rethink how we view older generations, and what resources and opportunities can help them thrive and be active in their communities.”

Critical to such efforts, Matz believes, is to have as comprehensive a picture as possible—quantitative and qualitative—of older adults’ everyday lives, and their attitudes and perceptions about themselves and their lives. One of her major activities has been Engaged4Life, a behavioral intervention designed to encourage community-dwelling older adults to embed physical activity, cognitive activity, and social interaction into their everyday lives in contexts that are personally meaningful and natural, via technology-assisted self-monitoring of activity levels, psycho-education, goal setting, and peer mentorship. The project has been supported by the Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions and the BC Institute on Aging.

We need to drastically rethink how we view older generations, and what resources and opportunities can help them thrive and be active in their communities.
School of Social Work Associate Professor Christina Matz

She also collaborated with BCSSW colleague Associate Professor Rocio Calvo in a study that examined older adults’ levels of happiness and life satisfaction; the team found that immigrants, especially Hispanic, who had lived in the U.S. for an average of 30 years were more likely to report high levels of happiness and life satisfaction than their native-born counterparts.

Another research project in which Matz participated sought to determine the effect of volunteerism on older adults who had lost a spouse. The results showed those who had been widowed were able to reduce feelings of loneliness by volunteering 100 hours per year (approximately two hours a week). Matz and her colleagues received a Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging Award for the study.

In a similar vein, Matz was part of a team that researched older adults’ use of mobile phone: Their findings revealed that those using mobile phones for sociability tended to feel less loneliness—especially where associated with increased face-to-face interaction—in contrast to those who utilized them for entertainment or passing the time, and had less face-to-face interaction.

Matz’s activities also have involved outreach. This semester, she and Associate Professor of Sociology Sara Moorman organized campus events to celebrate “Careers in Aging Week,” including talks on social inequality in later life; current research and practices involving brain health for older adults; and the grassroots “Dementia Friend” movement that aids community members living with dementia.

On still another front—with applications that go beyond her specific area of research—Matz is seeking to increase skill literacy for MSW students who lack training in research methods and statistics. Supported by an Academic Technology Innovation Grant, she is utilizing ecological momentary assessment (EMA), which relies on collecting data in real time and in natural settings; through EMA, the students are prompted via an app to collect data via surveys that ask basic yet revealing questions (“Where are you? Who are you with? How do you feel?”).

“We can analyze the data and demonstrate to students certain concepts, such as measuring happiness,” explains Matz.

Hard data, Matz believes, can provide the means by which to answer questions about aging that are often rooted in heart and soul.   

“People say, ‘I’ve invested so much in my family, my work, my community; now it’s my time,’” she says. “Some want to re-imagine themselves, whether through volunteerism, education, even another kind of paid work. We need to look at the lives of older adults through their eyes, and help them address their questions and concerns about what comes next.”


—Sean Smith, University Communications | April 2019