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Engaged as We Age

Growing old in the 21st century is not what is used to be.

The purpose of this project is to develop an ongoing, national study of aging that asks the broad question:

  • What is the impact of engagement — in continued work, in volunteer activities, in informal helping, and in caregiving for family members and friends — on the mental and physical health of older people?

The Engaged as We Age project began in 2009 as a new initiative to assess the challenges and opportunities associated with later life engagement in four roles: employee, volunteer, caregiver, and student. The first phase of the project involved bringing researchers, policy-makers, and employers together to discuss the barriers and facilitators of later life engagement in these roles. Phase II, which began in 2010, involved conducting a series for focus groups with community-dwelling older adults involved in various productive activities. It also involved carrying out the Life & Times in an Aging Society Study, which was a survey of over 800 individuals, the majority of whom were over the age of 50, to better understand the relationship between engagement (in work, volunteering, caregiving and education) and psychological well-being. Phase III, which began in September of 2011, has involved the development of new strategies for the measurement of engagement, which we differentiate from “involvement,” and understand to refer to the psychological significance of an activity or role. Phase IV will involve attracting funding for a large national study of engagement to examine the predictors and consequences of later life engagement.


Overcoming Negative Perceptions of Aging

Over the past couple of decades, gerontologists have wrestled with ways to overcome outdated and mostly negative perceptions of growing older. Added years of longevity and health are unprecedented and represent opportunities for a variety of approaches to contentment, satisfaction, and even continued growth in later life.

Now the question is, how can we move beyond the idea of old age as a “roleless role”? How can we provide the optimal structure for maximizing opportunities for well-being and vitality? What do practitioners, employers, and policy-makers need to know in order to re-write the future of old age in America?

One of the responses to the old disengagement paradigms has been to focus attention on strategies to help individuals “age successfully.” Successful and healthy aging has often been interpreted as steps taken to avoid disease and disability, maintain mental and physical function, and continue engagement with life.

Another concept — “productive aging” — refers to “activities that produce goods and services, whether paid or not,” and focuses attention on the contributions that older adults make at work, in volunteer capacities, and with care-giving (either to spouses, parents, families members with disabilities, or grandchildren).

Considerations of “successful aging” and “productive aging” have challenged many old assumptions and expectations for the roles that older adults should/will assume. Despite the promise of these new paradigms, critics suggest that value labels such as healthy and productive aging imply that there is a “best way, an only way” to age well, and that people who develop a debilitating disease are “unsuccessful.” Some worry that efforts to get elder citizens to be more productive will undermine social programs like Social Security and Medicare, much needed supports especially for women and minorities. Furthermore, to date, there has been limited attention focused on the social and structural changes needed to facilitate “success” or “productivity.”

“If we are to promote productive aging, there is a need for enlarged public- and private-sector responsibility … we need to explore perceptions of the public and how they define productive aging, productivity, and older adult’s contributions” (Estes & Mahakian, 2001, p. 209).

moving forward

We believe it is a critical time to develop a major initiative of this type. Not too long ago, Jennifer Graham suggested in The Boston Globe (July 26, 2009) that “boomer geezers will serve no useful purpose to the young…”

Older adults entering the traditional retirement ages (such as the Baby Boom Generation referred to above) do indeed face a very different later life context than did the generation just ahead of them — in terms of health, economic realities, and longevity. Are we ready to optimize both their experience of aging and their potential contributions to the good of all?


Engaged as We Age is a Joint Project of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work and the Institute on Aging at Boston College.
Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Institute on Aging at Boston College, and Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.




For more information on Engaged as We Age, or to schedule a conversation with any of the Center’s team, please contact:

617-552-9195 |


the engaged as we age team

primary investigators

Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Co-Director of Research, Primary Data Studies
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Research Professor
Lynch School of Education, Boston College
Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College

research team

Elyssa Besen, PhD
Research Scientist
Center for Disability Research, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety
Melissa Brown, MSW, PhD

Adjunct Faculty
Graduate School of Social Work, Boston College

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College