News Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Celebrating “Older Americans Month”: WashU employees say they “never stop learning”

Every May, the Administration for Community Living leads our nation’s observance of Older Americans Month. The May 2021 theme is “Communities of Strength.”

Part of what makes Washington University a “community of strength” is its diverse and multidisciplinary faculty and staff. This month, as the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging celebrates Older Americans Month, we honor the achievements, passion and growth of older adults in the WashU community.

We interviewed a sampling of faculty and staff, some of whom are well into their careers, some who are mid-way through. We discussed what they had hoped to accomplish when they were just starting out, what their career is like now, and what is yet to come. Ironically, all interviewees mentioned two distinct points: they “never stop learning” and retirement is not “the end” but rather “the next chapter.”

We thank the following for their participation in this article:

Caroline Arbanas, MA, BA
Assistant Director of Medical Public Affairs
Executive Director of Research Communications
School of Medicine

Brian D. Carpenter headshot

Brian Carpenter, PhD
Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences
Arts & Sciences

Randi Foraker, PhD, MA
Associate Professor, Division of General Medical Sciences,
School of Medicine
Associate Professor of Public Health, Brown School
Director, Public Health Data & Training Center,
Institute for Public Health
Director, Center for Population Health Informatics

William G. Powderly, MD, FRCPI, FRCP, FIDSA
William Campbell Professor of Medicine
Larry J. Shapiro Director,
Institute for Public Health
Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Research
Director, Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences
Co-director, Division of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine

Vetta L. Sanders Thompson, PhD, MA
Desmond Lee Professor of Racial & Ethnic Studies
Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion & Equity, Brown School
Co-director of the Center for Community Health Partnership & Research, Institute for Public Health

How long have you worked in your field? Did you originally see yourself working in the field this long? Do you see yourself working in another field at any point in your life?

Brian Carpenter: I’ve been a college professor for my entire career (21 years now). When I started graduate school, my dream was to become a professor focused on issues of aging, so I have the good fortune to say that my dream has matched my reality.

Bill Powderly: I graduated from medical school in 1979 but have benefited enormously from the fact that medicine as a career can be very diverse in the range of experiences that one can have. This has led to constant refreshing and rebooting throughout my career, so that I rarely get bored. I have been able to take aspects of my career as an academic physician and emphasize different dimensions at varying times: I am a clinician, a researcher, a teacher, an administrator and a leader. At different points in my career, one or more of those roles have dominated, but I always have had some time for the other aspects and that allows great flexibility. I would not choose another field but I could see myself taking on a new role – provided I can find one or two of my current roles to give up.

Randi Foraker: My PhD was in epidemiology and I worked for six years as an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at Ohio State University. I was then recruited to WashU to work in the Institute for Informatics where I’ve developed a passion for developing testing and implementing clinical decision support tools in the electronic health record in order to improve population health–specifically cardiovascular health–which has been very exciting.

Vetta Sanders Thompson: I have worked in academia for 32 years. I originally planned a clinical career and anticipated an administrative role. While I continue to use my clinical skills and background, I am more engaged in research than I originally intended.

How have your views about the workforce changed today vs. when you began your career?

Brian Carpenter: Overall, the workplace feels more dynamic, more fluid, more changeable, and maybe more uncertain. The pace of change and the volume of information have both accelerated dramatically, and the nature of a job can change rapidly too. In my own career, I’ve had to keep up with more complex research questions and designs, the emergence of new techniques for data analysis, and of course new technologies used in my teaching, research, and clinical work. All of these have meant I need to keep learning and expanding my skills.

Randi Foraker: I’m trained as an epidemiologist but I realized my worth in the field of informatics and how when we think about data, we need to think about it critically: where it comes from, what its intended use was and what we hope to use it for in the future; whether those data are fit for purpose. Data experts are needed in the field now and we have a need to fill shoes in terms of understanding data biases. My team and I have worked to identify the biases and we’re excited at the direction this will take. I never thought I’d be working alongside data and computer scientists, but here I am and I feel like my training continues to be valuable in that regard.

Bill Powderly: Yes, in medical practice and in research, there is a much greater emphasis on the role of teams than there was in the early 1980s, when I was in training.  Partially, it is a result of increased complexity such that it is impossible for one person to be expert in everything, but also it reflects the value of understanding of how diversity in thought and opinion actually improves outcomes.

Have the ways in which you juggle and/or balance work and home life changed over the years? If so, how?

Caroline Arbanas: When our kids – now 23, 21 and 18 – were little, I stepped away from my job at another healthcare institution to care for them. It would have cost a fortune to have them in daycare, and jobs back in the late 1990s/early 2000s did not have much flexibility in terms of work hours or caring for children. I think more employers, and certainly Washington University, have incorporated more family friendly policies over the years that help with work life balance, such as not having to take vacation time to care for a sick child. The pandemic – with many employees working at home, side-by-side with children engaged in remote learning – has helped many parents be more connected to home life.

Brian Carpenter: I am much more intentional about making time for myself and my relationships and passions outside of work than I used to be. Some of the technological changes that I mentioned earlier — the ubiquity of email, remote working options like Zoom, telehealth — have made it easier to work all the time, wherever I am. So, I have to make sure I’m building in time to disconnect to make sure I can recharge. I’ve also become clearer about what it is that does help me recharge. I have a more confident self-awareness that I need to be physically active, I need to seek out music in my life, and I need to spend time with family and friends regularly.

Bill Powderly: I think, as I have gotten older, what is important to me has changed. I have much less ‘to prove’ now so I am more interested in whether what I do makes a difference. If I think it does, then I will continue to do it. In addition, I am much more conscious of having a balance between ‘work’ and the rest of my life. We don’t get time back for time we missed because a work project was too ‘important’. I have worked both in Europe and in the U.S. One thing I learned working in Europe was to take your time off; to take some time completely away from work. People joke that Europe shuts down for the month of August. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. When I go on vacation now, I switch off my e-mail completely. Oddly enough, the sun still rises the next morning.

Vetta Sanders Thompson: Because my children are adults, it seems harder to say no to work demands. I spend far more time at work than I did when they were young.

Have you ever experienced ageism when applying for or while on the job? If so, in what form? How was the issue resolved?

Caroline Arbanas: I haven’t experienced ageism but as someone in my late 50s, I wouldn’t want to be looking for a job right now, either. I’ve been at Washington University since 2006, and have felt like the university places value on experience and that has helped me grow in my career. Our office is made up of people of all ages and we learn from each other. Younger people in our office have just as much to contribute as those of us who have been with Medical Public Affairs for several decades or more. We strive to be open to new ideas and perspectives, and having employees of multiple ages in the office helps encourage that.

Have your views concerning retirement changed since you began your career? If so, how?

Brian Carpenter: Since I began my career, I’ve seen how different people, in different kinds of careers, have approached and navigated retirement. I have friends who worked in finance or tech who have already retired, and that blew my mind when I first heard about that. However, they’ve moved on to second careers or other pursuits in their next phase. More recently, I’ve seen colleagues in academia begin their own retirement, and I’ve learned from them about options, preparation, and what’s possible as a next chapter in life.

Randi Foraker: My views about retirement haven’t really changed other than rethinking what my role will be in retirement. I would like to continue to dedicate my expertise to the field in critical ways. During the pandemic, I saw how an “all hands on deck” approach has been invaluable and if I can contribute to the field in some capacity after retirement, it would be fulfilling. I also want to make sure I live the later years of my life enjoying the things I’ve worked hard to enjoy.

Bill Powderly: Not surprisingly, when I was younger I had fairly fixed views on retirement at a specific time or age – 65 for example. Now, I can see it as more of a continuum where some responsibilities end but some can continue. The great advantage I have compared to many other workers is that I can choose.

Vetta Sanders Thompson: I don’t plan to retire at the age that I originally thought that I would. In addition, I am more likely to change the focus and location of my work than to end my work life.

In what ways do you feel WashU is an “Age-friendly University”?

Brian Carpenter: WashU is taking important steps in becoming more welcoming to people of all ages in its programs and opportunities. We’ve also done things to bring the generations together in classes and activities and we’re working hard to educate our students about the joys and opportunities of learning about aging and older adults.