University of Iowa Aging and Longevity Studies Program marks 40th anniversary

The program will celebrate its 40th birthday with an international, online learning summit with presentations from faculty, elders, and stakeholders around the world.


Jenna Galligan

The School of Social Work, located in North Hall, is seen on March 11, 2019.

Clinton Garlock, News Reporter

Learning summits from University of Iowa faculty, elders, and stakeholders from around the world are marking Thursday as the 40th anniversary of the founding of the University of Iowa’s Aging and Longevity Studies Program.

“We are one of the longest-living certificate programs in the University of Iowa, and one of the longest-lived gerontology certificates in the country,” said Mercedes Bern-Klug, the program’s director.

The learning summit is open to students, practitioners, and the public and will feature two days of presentations. Bern-Klug said she believes people do not give older adults the chance to fully participate in society, citing ageism, discrimination, and misconceptions about aging as barriers that the 40th anniversary summit – and the program itself – is working to dismantle.

“We’re trying to broaden people’s ideas of what it can mean to be an older adult in contemporary society,” Bern-Klug said. “So, we’re featuring older adults themselves, who are on their third career and are having fun and making money and doing good in society.”

Although she originally planned to hold the summit in person, she said the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to go online. However, Bern-Klug said there is a silver lining to a virtual celebration.

“Now we have a speaker from Dublin who was able to join us, two from New York City, and one from Boston,” she said. “We have speakers we could never have afforded to bring in, but through Zoom will be a part of our conference.”

The event itself is dedicated to Hermine McLeran, the founder of the Aging and Longevity Studies Program. Bern-Klug said McLeran had come to work in the UI’s College of Dentistry and was tapped to create a university-wide credential to prepare all students to work with older adults.

McLeran then served as the director of the program for 17 years, Bern-Klug said, which made honoring McLeran’s legacy a reason Bern-Klug created the 40th anniversary summit.

“She died suddenly and unexpectedly a few years ago, and so we have set up a student fund in her name,” Bern-Klug said. “Part of what we’ll be doing is also encouraging people to donate to that student fund so we can support students who are working on their aging and longevity certificate.”

The director added that all the presentations from the summit will be available online for free beginning Oct. 1, which is the United Nations International Day of Older Persons.

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Nadia Sabbagh Steinberg, the program coordinator, said everyone can benefit from this nuanced understanding of older adults that the summit and program teaches.

“It’s the first time in our history that a number of older people surpass the number of children… particularly in developed economies like ours in the United States,” Sabbagh Steinberg said. “No matter what profession you pursue, all of us are going to experience the effects of population aging in any career.”

Although the Aging and Longevity Studies Program is part of the School of Social Work, the coordinator said it is a university-wide and multidisciplinary program available to any student.

UI senior Austin Uhl is involved with program as well. He is graduating this year with a bachelor’s in Global Health Studies and certificates in Aging and Longevity Studies and Disability Studies, and said he first got involved with the program when he took the introduction to gerontology course.

“It turned out to me loving this class and learning so much more than I thought I would about the aging process, and how important this subject is in so many different aspects of the world,” Uhl said.

The graduate-to-be said although he is not completely sure what he will do with his degrees, he is hoping to do research on problems facing the aging population.

He added that he is excited to attend the 40th anniversary summit, where he will be introducing and moderating a Q&A with Craig Mokihiber, the Director of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York.

Said Uhl: “Out of all of the coursework I’ve done at Iowa, the Aging and Longevity Studies Program’s classes and administration has been by far my favorite and the best.”