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UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health reaches first anniversary with numerous accomplishments

Participants in CEAH’s Art and Aging Workshop, held in February. The workshop was one of many events and conferences that the ce
Participants in CEAH’s Art and Aging Workshop, held in February. The workshop was one of many events and conferences that the center held or participated in during its inaugural year.

August 26, 2019

Tom Meuser, Ph.D., founding director of UNE's Center for Excellence in Aging and Health
Tom Meuser, Ph.D., founding director of UNE's Center for Excellence in Aging and Health

UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health (CEAH), a University-wide resource for applied research on healthful aging, is poised to observe its first anniversary on September 1 – and the center has a great deal to celebrate.

The CEAH launched on September 1, 2018, under the direction of founding director Tom Meuser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and internationally known gerontologist. Under his guidance, the center has reached several impressive milestones.

According to Meuser, applied research depends on willing, committed participants. The creation of the Legacy Scholars Program, parts of which include a participant registry of seniors and a longitudinal study, is a crucial step in achieving the center’s research vision. Adults aged 60 and older, from Maine and elsewhere, join with UNE students, faculty and staff in shared scholarship and service in support of healthy, meaning-filled aging. Scholars complete an annual health-related survey and agree to volunteer for at least one research study in a three-year period. In return, Legacy Scholars are invited to special “Coffee & Conversation” programs, participate in cultural events, sit for recorded life story interviews and join in other enrichment activities. They are also honored for their service at an annual Legacy Scholars Breakfast, the first of which was held for over 120 guests on June 1.

The program has already enrolled 340 participants in the registry and longitudinal study, providing more than 200 volunteers for research and teaching projects at UNE thus far.

Meuser views the Legacy Scholars Program as a signature component of the CEAH and believes it is acutely on target with the overall goals of the University. “I’m so gratified by the volunteerism and community spirit of our Legacy Scholars. They are remarkable people by any measure,” he stated. “Their engagement is critical to the success of the CEAH and UNE’s broader mission as an ‘age friendly university.’ Good research takes time, and having a pool of willing volunteers is wonderful for our faculty and student investigators, alike.  The potential of the Legacy Scholars Program is immense, and I can’t wait to see what our shared future holds.”

Another noteworthy accomplishment of the CEAH is the creation of its first satellite office. Located at the Motherhouse at Baxter Woods, a renovated convent on Stevens Avenue near UNE that now houses 88 apartments for adults aged 55+, the satellite office provides opportunities for student training, lifelong learning and applied research. The associate director of the CEAH, Regi Robnett, Ph.D., OTR/L, longtime professor of occupational therapy at UNE, works closely with intern Elsabeth Carrales, a UNE Master of Social Work student, at the Motherhouse to conduct a research-based needs assessment. They also provide resources, presentations, group activities and a place for meaningful social interaction. Robnett said of the Motherhouse, “This setting provides a wonderful opportunity for CEAH to start making community connections and to provide valuable client services related to what health care students are learning on the UNE campus down the street.” She added that “many of the Motherhouse residents are also interested in being participants in research to promote healthful aging.”

The Motherhouse represents a model for senior housing that is growing across the nation, Meuser explained. Visionary developers, such as DC Management and Housing Initiatives of New England, renovate and repurpose landmark structures to provide affordable housing for older adults. Having a satellite office in such a structure, he said, is essential for studying what makes this approach special and sustainable. The CEAH is currently planning a second satellite office at Bessey Commons, a former high school turned senior apartment community in Scarborough.

The center strives to promote the study of healthful aging by providing financial support to jumpstart new projects by UNE faculty and students. On that front, it has made significant progress in its first year. To date, it has seeded 10 research projects worth over $60,000, ranging from a College of Dental Medicine study into periodontitis and Alzheimer’s disease to a Department of Psychology project that explores the self and daily life in older adults. Guided by its research priorities, which are defined by its seven pillars of aging research (identities, functions, transitions, generations, practices, economics and environments), the CEAH will make its first formal call for interdisciplinary projects in the fall.

Also during its inaugural year, the CEAH held or participated in various events and conferences. It hosted the first Legacy Scholars Coffee Event, featuring nationally known geropsychologist Peter Lichtenberg, Ph.D., from Wayne State University; hosted a one-day Art and Aging workshop; and participated in a two-day Maine Alzheimer’s Summit, organized by Jackson Laboratories. In addition, the center facilitated a memorandum of understanding for telehealth education and research with Senscio Systems, Inc., a health management solutions company, and formed a strategic partnership with the International Center for Life Story Innovations and Practice at UCONN.

The establishment of the CEAH was made possible by a generous gift of $1 million from Housing Initiatives of New England in support of new programs and approaches to healthy and active aging. UNE Trustee Cynthia Taylor, the president of Housing Initiatives, who helped secure the grant for the University, said that she is very impressed by Meuser’s ability to reach so many significant milestones in the one-year period since its launch. "I am so pleased with how the CEAH is promoting applied research on aging,” she shared. “There's a community of faculty, students and community partners coming together around questions that matter for older adults. I look forward to seeing what develops in year two and beyond.”

Meuser’s goals for the center at its five-year anniversary in 2023 are equally ambitious as those he set for the CEAH’s first year. “We aspire to have 2,000 older adults actively engaged with us as Legacy Scholars, a thriving post-doctoral fellowship program in aging research for new Ph.D.s, and at least a dozen faculty members building grant-funded programs of research on healthful aging,” he stated. “We are well on our way, and we welcome friends to join us as we forge ahead.”

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