Syracuse University Magazine


Merril Silverstein

Aspects of Aging

Merril Silverstein began working with elderly people and studying aging when he was pretty much still a kid himself. In 1978, fresh out of Columbia with a master’s degree in social work, he helped the residents of a Brooklyn senior center organize a political action committee to protest nursing home abuses. He then assisted with a nationwide study of community programs that support independence for older people, an experience that further deepened his interest in gerontology. “I went all over the place—from Philadelphia’s inner city to the New Mexico desert—and had some great experiences talking to older people and learning about their lives,” says Silverstein, inaugural holder of the Marjorie Cantor Professorship in Aging. “And that was just fun.”

Silverstein recalls meeting a woman who lived in Paris in the ’20s, and hearing how her son got into a fist fight with Ernest Hemingway. “It was a window onto the past that I found very interesting,” says Silverstein, a prolific scholar and researcher who came to SU in August 2012 from the University of Southern California, where he served as professor of gerontology and sociology. “That grew into an interest in aging as a process—that the person you see as old came from an earlier stage of life. What was responsible for his or her evolution into this person you see now? The whole idea of understanding the historical importance of when people come of age is where it becomes interesting for me.”

Today, having published more than 130 age-related publications and receiving nearly $4.5 million in external grants for age-related research, Silverstein is principal investigator of the Longitudinal Study of Generations, a project that has tracked multigenerational families in Southern California for four decades. He leads projects around the globe, including in Sweden, Israel, and the Netherlands, and directs a study of older adults in rural China that is entering its second decade. “My research is on issues related to family relationships and aging, including caregiving and social support for aging parents, the quality of intergenerational relationships, and how those relationships change over time,” says Silverstein, who holds a doctoral degree in sociology from Columbia University and is editor of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, the discipline’s flagship journal produced by the Gerontological Society of America.

As Cantor Professor, Silverstein plays a key role in advancing interdisciplinary research and teaching in the field of aging through the newly established Aging Studies Institute, which opened in Lyman Hall in March. “Having this shared space with faculty from different home departments is something of an experiment,” says Silverstein, for whom the promise of establishing the institute was a compelling factor in his decision to come to SU. “But I’m already liking it. Even if we are only sharing lunch around the table, we can have informal conversations more easily. Ideally, that leads to more brainstorming and more ideas for projects, grant proposals, and collaborations. And we’re starting to see that happen.”

Although Southern California had been his home for 19 years, Silverstein is enjoying life in Central New York. He says the transition has been an easy one not only for him, but also for his wife, Kathleen Roland, a Setnor School of Music faculty member and highly regarded concert soloist, and for their 12-year-old daughter. “It’s a beautiful area, and we’re very happy to be here,” he says.         —Amy Speach

Marjorie Cantor Professorship in Aging

Recipient: Merril Silverstein, School of Social Work, David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, and Department of Sociology, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Background: The new professorship recognizes the pioneering scholarship of the late Marjorie Cantor, which advanced understanding of the lifestyles of older persons, the importance of caregiver support systems, and needs of elders across class and culture. Cantor, who died in 2009, was a president of the Gerontological Society of America, served on the faculty at Fordham University, and participated in two White House conferences on aging, leaving behind a 40-year body of work, including two landmark studies, “The Elderly in the Inner City of New York” and “Growing Older in New York City in the 1990s.” She also co-wrote Social Care of the Elderly: The Effects of Ethnicity, Class, and Culture. The professorship was established with an endowed gift from Chancellor Nancy Cantor and her brother, Richard L. Cantor, in memory of their mother.

Photo by Steve Sartori