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Inside The Senior Alliance: Future of Aging with Dr. Thomas Jankowski (Ep 25)

Jason Maciejewski: (00:00)
Welcome to Inside The Senior Alliance, a podcast exploring resources and issues in the field of aging. I’m Jason Maciejewski, CEO of the Senior Alliance, which is the Area Agency on Aging, serving Western and Southern Wayne County. And joining me today, once again, Dr. Tom Jankowski, who’s the Associate Director for Research at the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology. Tom’s also a member of our board of directors. Tom, welcome back to the podcast.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (00:25)
Thanks, Jason. I’m glad to be here.

Jason Maciejewski: (00:26)
What we’re gonna do today is talk a little bit about kind of the state of aging and gerontology and what you see the future being, and maybe some of the evolution that you’ve seen over the course of your career at the I o G. But I want to start with something I found really interesting when I learned about you 12, 13 years ago, is that your bachelor’s degree is actually in political science, just like me. And you’ve got a little bit of political experience in your background, but you got into the world of gerontology and aging services. Could you talk for a minute about how that journey happened, going from being somebody that was interested in the political world to getting involved in gerontology?

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (01:06)
That’s a good question. Um, you know, I did, I got my bachelor’s degree in political science from Michigan State, and I have worked in politics as a legislative aid to the House of Representatives in Lansing. And I managed several election campaigns at different levels. But I went back to school, to graduate school, to get a Master’s degree and a PhD. And my master’s in my PhD are also in political science. But what happened was I became interested in changes in people’s political behavior as they get older. Why is it that young people tend not to vote yet older people vote at really high rates? And so I started studying something that I call lifespan civic development. How do people grow politically and as members of their community as they age? And that sort of got me into gerontology, and I became fascinated with the process of aging itself.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (02:05)
And frankly, as a researcher and as a statistician, age is a wonderful variable. It’s nice and continuous, and people are distributed at all different ages. And when you have survey data and other data that has age in it, it makes nice graphs. And so I started being interested in age from a purely sort of scientific and technical perspective, but I also had some grandparents that I was very close to. I think that older adults are just a huge repository of wisdom and history, and I think that we as a society don’t take advantage of learning from our elders as much as we should. We’re a very youth oriented society, and everything has to be young and hip. And we miss out on a lot by neglecting older adults. So, as I moved from the idea of voting behavior into aging, I just became more interested in various aspects of aging itself.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (03:08)
And in graduate school, I got a job working at the Institute of Gerontology as a research assistant and just found the work that they were doing there just fascinating. And I’ve been there for 30 odd years now, and I love my job. And one of the great greatest things about working at the Institute of Gerontology is it’s a multidisciplinary institute. So, I’m a political scientist, my colleagues are psychologists, sociologists, nurses, anthropologists, social workers — we really run the gamut. And the great thing about that is we all come from different disciplinary perspectives, but we’re all focused on aging. So, we learn so much from each other. I don’t know that much about psychology, but I learn an awful lot about psychology every time I talk to one of my colleagues because that’s their field; they might even learn a little bit about political behavior from me.

Jason Maciejewski: (04:00)
The aging is such a broad topic. When I talk to people about what I do, and I work for an Area Agency on Aging, first of all, people need an explanation of what that is, but, you know, immediately come back to Meals on Wheels and those kind of nutritional programs because people have heard about that and they understand that. But, it’s really so much more. And your approach to it was initially kind of through that data lens and looking at demographics and patterns of behavior. But, there’s so many things that can be looked at through the prism of aging that it’s nearly endless at this point. Every topic that you think about, whether it’s healthcare or housing or transportation, there’s an aging aspect to it. I wanted to talk a little bit about how the field has changed over the last 10 or 20 years. We’re experiencing that what some people call “the age wave,” the baby boomer generation turning 65, you know, 10,000 people every day become eligible for Medicare in this country and demographically, this rush of people into that system. How have you seen things evolve with older adults over the last 10, 15 years?

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (05:08)
I think one of the biggest changes that we’re facing is just simply the sheer growth in the numbers of older adults. You know, between 2000 and 2030, the number of people aged 65 and older in our area is going to more than double. We are approaching a point, and other areas of the state have already reached and surpassed this point, but in our area, we are approaching the point where we will have more older adults than children. And not only is that unusual, it’s never happened before in human history. I mean, children have always outnumbered older adults, but because of declining birth rates and because of lengthening life expectancies, people are living longer, healthier lives, and people are having fewer children, we have this sort of major demographic shift going on, and we’re going to have many, many more older adults as a proportion of the population than we’ve ever had.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (06:04)
And that’s going to present, I think, not only some challenges but also some opportunities as well. One thing that has happened over time (and by over time, I mean over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years) is that people with the development of pension programs in the ’40s and social security, people started retiring earlier. You know, it used to be that you worked until you physically could not work anymore. We developed this wonderful program called Social Security that allows people to retire and to live, and many people are fortunate enough to have some savings or a pension, but the length of time that people spend in retirement because of those longer healthier lives has increased so that people sometimes are now spending 20 or 30 years in retirement. And I think that we haven’t yet figured out how to take advantage of that.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (06:55)
I think as a society, we really can’t afford to have everybody spend 30 years doing nothing but leisure activities. Our older adults are a tremendous resource for all of us, and we have to figure out a way to employ some of those resources for the betterment of everyone. And I don’t want to say that we have to press people into service who, you know, they want to retire but we’re gonna force them to work. Frankly, an issue that a lot of retired people face is an issue having to do with finding meaning and purpose in their lives. And so I think we can address both of those issues by finding useful, productive things for retired people to do that helps society and helps them with their own lives. I mean, having a, a meaning and purpose in your later years gives you a reason to get out of bed. And people who are positively engaged with their communities live longer and healthier lives than people who sit at home and watch tv.

Jason Maciejewski: (07:52)
One of the things that’s fascinated me about the aging field when I got involved in it, was I look at my grandparents’ generation, which was largely born in the twenties, went through World War II, and their view of retirement was very different than how people view it today. Whether it’s my generation, being in my fifties, or my parents’ generation. My grandparents, like you said, worked up until the end and then they retired, and it was just not a whole lot – not a whole lot of travel, not a lot of activity. It was just, I’m done working. And my parents’ generation, the baby boomers, are I think more engaged in whether it’s leisure activities or volunteer activities. But, when I think about retirement, I tend to think of it is, I’m just retiring from having to work for a wage. It’s like, what am I gonna do next with my time? How am I gonna engage in community? What activities am I going undertake to have impact, which is just radically different than what my grandparents dealt with. And so, that’s one aspect of this I think is I’ve been fascinated by about just the way people approach retirement in the 21st century.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (09:03)
Yeah. In some ways, our parents were part of what I call the golden age of retirement. When you could be an auto worker with a pension and social security, you could afford to retire when you’re 60, or maybe even 55, and then you have many, many years of a decent income and absolute freedom to do whatever you want. Now, that has changed quite a bit. First of all, people don’t have private pensions the way they used to. The number of workers that are covered by private pensions has fallen dramatically since the ’70s, and, for example, I’m a professor at Wayne State University, but I don’t have a pension. I have a 401k, but I’m responsible for funding that and for saving all the money I need to support myself in retirement. So, retirement’s gonna be a little different for me than it was for my parents.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (09:50)
I’m going to have to work a little bit longer than my parents did. But, I think that on the back end of that, that’s going be made up by the fact that I have better healthcare than my parents did, I probably look forward to at least as long a life as they did, and hopefully, healthier so that I will be healthy and mobile well into my seventies, hopefully into my eighties, and I’ll have a lot of energy to give back to the community. I think there’s [inaudible] gerontologists (well, famous for gerontologists) named Matilda White Riley who said that the way that we distribute leisure time throughout our lifespans is kind of strange. You know, we bunch it all up in childhood and in late old age, and then we’re expected to work consistently throughout the middle of our lives.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (10:35)
And she sort of imagined a world in which we could distribute work and leisure a little bit differently, so that maybe when you’re a young parent in your thirties, maybe you only have to work 20 hours a week so that you could spend more time with your child. And then, when you’re an older adult, because you got that extra time off in your thirties, maybe you could work part-time a little longer. There are different ways to structure our lives, and I would say that the way that we currently structure them may not serve us very well when we have a society that is much older than it is right now. So, these are all things to be thinking about, and I think they’re pretty interesting. And so this is the kind of the things that we in gerontology are thinking about is, how we apportion leisure and work throughout our lives. We can talk about all different kinds of things too, like, you know, you mentioned housing and transportation. Those are huge issues, but work and leisure are issues that are going to be shifting, I think.

Jason Maciejewski: (11:34)
Another issue or area of life that impacts a lot of this is healthcare. You know, at the Area Agency on Aging, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can enhance people’s healthcare experience, how can we work with other organizations that are involved in healthcare, and have been particularly been interested in the evolving technology of healthcare and have seen at various conferences what might be coming down the road in terms of technology for older adults. We’ve seen a lot more in-home monitoring nowadays. I mean, even things as simple as the speakers, you know, your Amazon Alexa or whatever it might be, and how that’s helped people who might be isolated just by having that device or the companion pets that we’ve been involved in distributing a little bit here at the agency and dealing with isolation in terms of really a piece of technology that is giving somebody comfort, but medical technology as well.

Jason Maciejewski: (12:25)
I recently saw a presentation on digestible diagnostics where some of these things where we have to go in and have these scopes and tests, in the future we may actually just swallow a diagnostic tool and it kind of works its way and does its information collecting. So, I think technology is just something that’s aided us over the course of time as we’ve aged, but…and I don’t know if you guys have looked into any of that at the Institute of Gerontology, but certainly a big piece of aging going forward is going be how technology intersects with aging.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (12:58)
Absolutely. And, you know, one of my concerns about that is what you might call the digital divide. I mean, we…you know, I don’t wanna sound too cynical. Our healthcare system in this country has a lot of challenges that it faces, and one of them is that it’s too driven by money, so that essentially wealthy people get much better healthcare than poor people do. And that’s a problem, you know, for every age group, but it’s particularly a problem for older adults. So, while yes, I think technology has some tremendous potential to allow us to serve more people in a more cost effective way, and to make those services more accessible, my main concern is that we don’t leave anybody behind because there are an awful lot of older adults who don’t know how to use a computer, couldn’t afford to buy one, couldn’t afford to pay for monthly internet, and so then they’re faced with these telehealth services that they can’t access. So, I just want to make sure that as we develop technological solutions to problems that we bring everybody along with us and don’t leave anybody behind.

Jason Maciejewski: (14:08)
Yeah. It’s one thing to have the technology exists, it’s something totally different to have access to it and understand how to use it and benefit from it. Transportation is another aspect of aging that we put a lot of focus on here at the Senior Alliance, as you know, with the transportation program, initiating that a decade ago. And I happen to have…my oldest son works…he’s an engineer and he works for one of the big three, and he’s involved in these driverless vehicle development programs. And really fascinating to think about how transportation can evolve. And again, another area where having the technology available is one thing, having access to it is something completely different. But, to get back to the healthcare thing too, we know that getting to see a doctor makes a great impact on a person’s healthcare. It impacts how frequently they may be admitted to a hospital. It impacts the acuity of a particular disease. That simple interaction is really important. Transportation is a huge piece of that. What have you seen in terms of transportation evolution and its importance for older adults?

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (15:09)
I wish I had something good to say. . Transportation is a perennial problem, especially in southeast Michigan, in metro Detroit. And I’m going to be frank, we had a better transportation system a hundred years ago than we have now, especially for people who can’t drive or for people who have difficulty driving or for people who can’t afford a car. I mean, metro Detroit had this tremendous interurban system of street cars. You could go from Monroe to Mount Clemons and not have to drive. In the ’40s, ’50s, and 60s we did away with all of that, and we’ve been struggling ever since. So, I’m a little skeptical about driverless vehicles being able to fill all of those gaps. I think we have to be creative, and I think it’s going to be…You know, driverless vehicles are a very individual solution. We love to be individuals in this country. We don’t want to be part of a group. We want to be individuals who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do everything on our own. And driverless vehicles sort of conform to that vision. But, I’m going to say we’re not going to solve all of our problems that way. Some of our problems have to be solved by working together. And I think we’re always going need some form of public transit because there are always going to be, and especially as our population ages, there are always going to be a significant number of people whose cars just don’t work for them. You know, it just, for whatever reason, their vision doesn’t allow them to drive, their hip makes it very difficult to get in and out of a car. For whatever reason, there are more older adults who are not served well by car culture than there are people of other ages. So, driverless vehicles are one solution, but they’re certainly not the only solution.

Jason Maciejewski: (16:50)
I appreciate the thoughts on that one. I talk a lot about that in our household, obviously with my son and his job, and it’s going be interesting to see is in the next 10 years how transportation evolves and what do we do with mass transit here in southeast Michigan, and how do these new technologies fit with all of that. It’s going to be fascinating. I want to shift back to advocacy and maybe some of that policy world a little bit. We’ve been working a lot on advocating on the direct care worker crisis and, you know, every few years we’re advocating on the Older Americans Act. We’re always advocating for more service to be covered by Medicare, like hearing aids. We’re always advocating for a greater amount of funding to go to home and community-based services rather than nursing home-type services. So, when you view it through that political science lens that you have, what kind of changes would you like to see in terms of policy for older adults and aging services going forward?

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (17:47)
You know, one of the things I’d like to talk about for a minute is housing. Because I think that we are gonna face some significant housing issues going forward with an older population. I saw an estimate the other day that said only about 5% of our housing stock is appropriate for an aging population. And in our area, Southern and Western Wayne County has a number of inner ring suburbs, older suburbs such as Wynedotte, Ecorse, River Rouge, Melvindale, Allen Park, Dearborn—these are places that have neighborhoods that were built before the 1940s, and for the most part, those are houses that have some stairs to get up to the first floor, they have a laundry in the basement, some of them, my grandfather’s house didn’t have a bathroom on the main floor. It had a second-floor bathroom, but no bathroom on the main floor. And when you look at some of that older housing stock, it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family when you’re young and you have no mobility limitations, but once you start to develop some trouble climbing stairs, it becomes a very difficult to live there. What builders are building right now are these very large houses out in the outer ring suburbs. I live in Canton Township. The houses that are being built out here…I mean, they do not build houses that are less than 2,500 square feet, and some of them are four or 5,000 square feet. Well, that house is just way too big for an older individual or couple to live there. It’s much more space than they need to heat and take care of. So, what we need in terms of housing is a housing stock that’s going to better serve an older population. And I’m not sure how we figure that out because it’s not the way that the housing market works right now. It’s not cost-effective for builders to build 1,000-square-foot ranch houses with a main floor laundry. They’re building the large houses with large lots, and those aren’t going to really be good places to house our older population. This is an issue we’re going to have to figure out.

Jason Maciejewski: (19:42)
I see a lot more people putting additions on their house and having, you know, an in-laws’ wing and things like that. Out where I live, I’ve seen that multiple times now.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (19:54)
You know, I, I think there are some creative solutions to that, and that’s one of them. The obstacle to that is a lot of places have zoning laws that make it very difficult to expand, to build sort of like a grandmother’s cottage on your property, you just can’t. You’re prevented from doing that by zoning laws in a lot of places. Another thing is sharing housing. You know, I’ve heard several stories about two or three older women who get together and share a house and share the duties that come along with having a household, and they thrive. They love it. It works very well for them. However, according to the technical laws in their community, it’s illegal for them to do that. It’s illegal for unrelated people to live together like that. And I think we have to look at some of these antiquated laws and regulations that keep us from responding to the housing needs of an older population.

Jason Maciejewski: (20:47)
So, I want to close with one more question. If there is one thing that you could work on at the Institute of Gerontology that you’re not working on right now, what would that be?

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (20:58)
We just hired a new faculty member. Actually, we hired two new faculty members. But, one of them in particular spends her entire career studying caregiving. And I think informal caregiving is going to be a critically important thing for us to understand and support going forward because we all know that we’re facing this tremendous shortage of direct care workers. Informal family caregivers provide the majority of the care in this country, worth billions and billions of dollars every year. And so what we need to do is to understand how to support caregivers, how to encourage and train them so that they don’t burn out so that they can do their caregiving duties without suffering decreases in their own quality of life. So, I think caregiving is something that we don’t know enough about, and I’m just very excited that we now have somebody at the Institute of Gerontology who’s going to be focusing on caregiving and how we can best encourage and support family caregivers in this country.

Jason Maciejewski: (21:58)
That’s the exact issue that we’ve been focusing on at The Senior Alliance in terms of what are we not addressing that we should be addressing more. It’s come back in feedback from staff, and it’s come back in feedback from board members and advisory council members; it has become such a huge issue. And partially that’s probably demographics, with aging parents and grandparents and family members and more people realizing that they are caregivers and trying to balance that responsibility and work that they are doing with their regular lives. It’s definitely a recurring theme that we are seeing as well, so I’m excited to see you identify that. So, Tom, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk a little bit about the field of aging in general terms today, and greatly appreciate you joining us.

Dr. Tom Jankowski: (22:48)
It was my pleasure, Jason. Anytime.

Jason Maciejewski: (22:51)
If anyone has questions about services or programs The Senior Alliance offers, you can call us at 1-800-815-1112. Email us at You can also get more information through our website, On Facebook, we can be located by searching for The Senior Alliance. And finally, our Twitter handle is @ AAA1C. I’m Jason Maciejewski. Thank you for listening to this episode of Inside the Senior Alliance.

Speaker 3: (23:18)
Inside the Senior Alliance is a production of The Senior Alliance and Blazing Kiss Media.

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