Annual Event Addresses Social Determinants of Health

Janet Barnes-Farrell, Karen Devereaux Melillo, Ramraj Gautam, Lisa Abdallah
Janet Barnes-Farrell, Karen Devereaux Melillo, Ramraj Gautam and Lisa Abdallah.

By Karen Angelo

At UMass Lowell’s Center for Gerontology Research and Partnerships’ forum, speakers shared their latest research on aging workers in the workplace, age-friendly initiatives and asthma in older adults. 

The fifth annual healthy aging forum emphasized the all-encompassing impact that the environment and social determinants of health have in our society. 

“Researchers representing the multidisciplinary field of gerontology and collaborating on solutions are in the best position to make a difference to people’s lives,” said Karen Devereaux Melillo, interim dean of the Solomont School of Nursing and director of the Center for Gerontology Research and Partnerships. 

Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel engages with students during the conference.
Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences engages with students.
The opening keynote speaker, Janet Barnes-Farrell, a professor of psychological sciences and associate department head for research and resources at the University of Connecticut, set the record straight about the misconceptions of workers as they age. “The performance of aging workers did not change in areas such as technical and creative tasks. In fact, some behaviors improved in older workers,” said Barnes-Farrell. She explained that workers were less tardy, absent and resistant to change. 

To keep older workers on board, employers could design age-friendly workplaces. This can include adjusting tasks and offering flexibility, but she advised that the ideas for improvements should come from the workers. Barnes-Farrell, who is a faculty collaborator in the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace, a joint initiative of the UMass Lowell and the University of Connecticut, suggested that employers take advantage of the tools – including guides, sample activities and organization tips – that CPH-NEW offers to gather this feedback. 

Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences updated attendees on her collaboration with the city of Lawrence, to turn the city into an “Age-Friendly Community” – a place where housing, transportation, green spaces, health care and social services help residents of all ages lead healthier lives. Noel and her research team are gathering feedback from more than 8,000 people in the city to assess the city’s strengths and identify gaps within policies, programs and infrastructure. 

Student participate in a group discussion
Student attendants participate in a group discussion.
They recently completed a walkability audit to determine if the sidewalks, crosswalks and other areas along the streets and parks are safe and encourage people to walk and bike. 

Assoc. Teaching Professor of Nursing Ramraj Gautam and Devereaux Melillo are working together to begin an age-friendly university initiative at UMass Lowell. Gautam shared that for the first time in U.S. history, adults over 65 years will outnumber children under 18 years old by 2035. The goal of the initiative is to map out new directions to address lifelong learning for all ages at UMass Lowell. 

Research Prof. David Turcotte described his work bringing asthma education and interventions to low-income, elderly residents in Lowell. The project, conducted with the help of community partners, assessed the indoor living spaces of people 62 years and older in public or assisted low-income housing in the city. After evaluating the possible triggers of asthma, the team provided residents with vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters, mattress and pillow protectors, and less toxic cleaning products. These research data showed that improved health and reduction in home asthma triggers are not sustainable without additional follow-up interventions with seniors.