Voice of Experience
Robert Kahn is 95 years old. But as he leans back in his office at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research to consider a question, or avidly discusses a research problem with colleagues in the hall, hands gesturing, his age seems irrelevant.
Kahn came to U-M in 1948 to pursue a PhD in social psychology and to join the early founders of the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Over the next 40 years, until he was obliged to retire in 1988 at the age of 70, he built an illustrious and far-ranging career as a professor of psychology and public health and as a research scientist whose areas of interest spanned organizational and social psychology, electoral politics, survey methodology, public health, and aging.
After his official retirement, Kahn continued to work at ISR, writing grants, conducting research, and analyzing data. Kahn’s 1998 book, Successful Aging, written with John W. Rowe, MD, challenged the notion that genes are the primary determinant of how well people age. Instead, the authors pointed to exercise, social engagement, self-efficacy, and social support.
Kahn and his wife, Bea, relied on all of those when they faced a daunting recovery in 2006 after being hit by a car in an Ann Arbor parking garage. In a 2008 interview, at the age of 90, Kahn described how their daughters and extended family took leaves of absence to help them in their recovery. “The emotional effect of that is beyond words,” he said, adding that after living through the experience, “I think I could do a better chapter on social support.”
Most recently, Kahn has been studying whether applying the principles of Successful Aging could enhance and extend the physical and mental health of seniors. With the backing of Lawrence Landry, the former chief investment officer of the MacArthur Foundation, Kahn and fellow ISR researcher Toni Antonucci helped design a program to create a successful aging culture in older adult communities.
Landry launched Masterpiece Living, as it was called, in two Florida retirement communities in 2002. The communities improved residents’ diets, offered tailored exercise programs, gave medical feedback, and created peer support groups, among other measures. The program worked and has since been extended to 70 communities nationwide.
With the growing success of the original project, Kahn and Antonucci now have an $886,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to see whether the approach can accomplish as much for low-income seniors. Eventually, Kahn would like to make the array of health opportunities and advantages available to all of the elderly, whether in retirement communities or not.
In October 2012, Kahn sat down with writer Susan Rosegrant to build on an interview they had done four years earlier. Following is an edited version of that conversation.