Alumna’s gift helps prepare for graying society

Karen Hooker

By Lori Brandt | The Oregon Stater
photo by Karl Maasdam

Americans are living longer than ever before, with adults age 80-plus making up the fastest growing segment of society. By 2030, people over 65 will represent nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. For the first time in history there are more older adults world-wide than children under age five.

“We are on the leading edge of this global age transformation and are in the perfect position to help shape our future aging society,” said Karen Hooker, professor of human development and family sciences. “There are some compelling problems to be solved, but also many untapped opportunities.”

Hooker and her OSU colleagues are poised to help develop solutions for aging issues as well as capitalize on the opportunities. An award-winning scholar, she heads up OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research (CHAR). Established in 2005, the center brings together 42 faculty members from five colleges — public health and human sciences, engineering, science, liberal arts and business — to conduct innovative research, education and outreach aimed at enhancing the quality of life for older adults, their families and society.

Helping people age well is also a special interest of Jo Anne Leonard Petersen, ’47. Known as “Jody,” Petersen grew up in Silverton and graduated from OSU with a degree in home economics. She met her husband-to-be, Donald, at an OSU student dance. He went on to receive an engineering degree from the University of Washington and eventually became chairman of Ford Motor Company.

Jody Petersen became interested in gerontological issues while taking care of her own aging parents. “At that time, I found very little research anywhere in the country,” she said. She set out to change that by supporting the then emerging field at her alma mater.

In 1995, the Petersens established the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies, held by Alexis Walker. Earlier this year, they established a second endowed position, the Jo Anne Leonard Director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research. The endowment for the directorship will be funded by the proceeds from two gift annuities valued together at $2 million.

The Petersens’ latest gift is part of the Provost’s Faculty Match Program, which was created to encourage gifts to endow faculty position funds that support priorities in the university’s strategic plan. As of June 30, 19 funds qualified for the match, with donor commitments exceeding $20 million. During The Campaign for OSU, the university’s number of endowed faculty positions has nearly doubled.

The inaugural Jo Anne Leonard Director title will be awarded to Hooker, whose center is in the newly renamed College of Public Health and Human Sciences. The college has started a process, through the Council on Education for Public Health, to become the state’s first nationally accredited college of public health.

“I’m honored to assume this title and be able to expand our teaching and research efforts,” Hooker said. “We’re on the threshold of an aging world, and we are going to need more people in multiple disciplines looking at aging-related issues. This gift is crucial for the long-term viability of our work at CHAR.”

A recognized leader in her field, Hooker explores how personality affects mental and physical health as people face life-altering experiences such as retirement, launching young adult children, caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease and transition into long-term care. Hooker believes personality is a driving force behind successful aging and is becoming incorporated into public health approaches as prevention and health care become increasingly tailored to the individual.

She is also the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-funded program that trains doctoral students in four core areas related to aging: diet and genes, musculoskeletal, psychosocial and gerontechnology.

This last area is especially exciting to Petersen. “My hope is that when people design living spaces, they keep older people in mind. Little things — like wider hallways, higher toilets, sinks that accommodate wheelchairs — can make a difference,” explained Petersen, remembering the experiences of her own parents.

“People want to age in place,” agreed Hooker. “In the gerontechnology core, engineers and social scientists are developing supportive technologies, such as biomedical sensors (think Lifeline, but more sophisticated), to enhance the ability of older adults to live at home longer.”

Hooker is optimistic about the increasing ranks of seniors: “Today’s older adults are more educated, and many have more resources than in the past. I think they may possess an ethic of stewardship and have the mindset to contribute in ways that leave positive legacies for the future. The Petersens are a perfect example.”