Have you ever heard of gerontology? Until October 2015, neither had South Side High School graduate Carly Roman. But now she is a Ph.D student in the field at the University of Southern California and her research has gained widespread recognition. Most recently, she received a National Science Foundation fellowship for her work — an award, she has been told, 4 percent of applicants in her field receive.
Gerontology, broadly, is the study of old age and the problems associated with it — both physical and mental. While only a first year Ph.D student at the moment, Roman seeks to specialize in the psychological, political, sociological and biological elements of the discipline.
It all started for Roman, 22, with Glamour Gals, a high school club she began attending in 10th grade. The goal of Glamour Gals — an organization with chapters in schools across the country — is to provide companionship for the women of the country’s aging population. As part of the non-profit, high school and college-aged girls go to senior living homes at least once a month, sit down, chat, paint nails and put on makeup.
Roman said she was nervous at first. She didn’t have much experience dealing with seniors. “It was unfamiliar to me,” she said. “And it would have remained unfamiliar to me.” But a friend encouraged her to check it out.
They went to Maple Pointe Assisted Living in Rockville Centre. At first, Roman just wanted another item to put on her resume and college application. But there she met a woman named Gloria. “She seemed like she didn’t have a ton to do,” she recalled. She started talking with Gloria a few minutes once a week. Then, once a week turned into multiple times a week. Eventually she was inviting her family to hang out with Gloria, who lived until she was 98.
“There were many other Glorias,” she said. “But she was the one who gave me the inspiration.” Roman continued with Glamour Gals throughout high school and college, and care for the elderly became a passion for her.
She said she felt that older people still have much to offer society. “If they want to contribute… we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by not letting them,” she insisted. In college, Roman was drawn to the psychology of aging. She saw the positive psychological impact Glamour Gals had on the elderly women she interacted with and she wanted to study how it works.
She entered into the field of positive psychology. “Typically, psychology is looking at what’s wrong with you and how to fix it,” she explained. “Positive psychology is what’s good about you and how to improve it.”
Within that broader academic discipline, she homed in on the concept of generativity, a psychological term describing the self worth members of an older generation find by sharing their experience and knowledge to a younger generation.
For her undergraduate research at the University of Pennsylvania, Roman tasked a sample of elderly with writing an advice column. She then observed the psychological impact the activity had on the seniors. She surveyed them to find out how hopeful and optimistic they felt.
Until she applied for her doctorate, Roman considered herself a student in the field of positive psychology in aging. While looking for doctorate programs, she discovered the field of gerontology and that it comprised many of the concepts she was already working on. Additionally, it gave her room to expand her theories beyond psychology and into other fields such as politics and sociology.
One of her main interventions is to expand the definition of generativity so that it applies it to sharing information between peers and people of different economic and racial backgrounds. Although initially inspired by Gloria, much of her work has been influenced by another Maple Pointe resident — Ruth — who has been a confidante and a valuable consultant for Roman’s research for the past few years.
“She has given such amazing advice, not just life advice but helping me create by studies,” said Roman. “She helped me come up with the design for my project.”
It all started for her with a club. Now, Roman’s sister is president of the high school’s Glamour Gals. “It came full circle it’s not just an extracurricular club,” she remarked. “It’s a family thing.”