Asa Looks Back in 'Life Review' as It Celebrates 50 Years

By Cavanaugh, Gloria | Aging Today, May/June 2004 | Go to article overview

Asa Looks Back in 'Life Review' as It Celebrates 50 Years


Cavanaugh, Gloria, Aging Today


I want to thank everyone who contributed to the tremendous success of ASA's 50th anniversary gala celebration in April. More than 700 people attended the reception and dinner-which included a visit from San Francisco's new mayor, Gavin Newsom-and the event raised almost $400,000 toward the establishment of the association's first endowment fund. We were particularly gratified by the many wonderful corporate and organizational contributions. All of our supporters are being acknowledged, but at this time I would like to express gratitude to Pfizer Inc., AARP and Retirement Research Foundation for their generous sponsorship of the gala event. We were very pleased that Peter B. Corr, Pfizer senior vice president for science and technology, and Tom Nelson, chief operating office of AARP, were able to join us at the anniversary dinner.

I was especially happy to see many past presidents and board chairs of the association seated at the head table. We recently called on these leaders and other members of ASA's Council of Presidents to reminisce about their years with the association. A member of our publications staff, Jonathan Kauffman, wove many of their responses into the following brief history of the organization. I'm glad to be able to present his "life review" of ASA in this column.

In 1954, a small group of Californians working in the nascent field of aging banded together to form a professional society. They envisioned their group, which they named the Western Gerontological Society (WGS), as a regional satellite group of the Gerontological Society. Eventually, it would grow into the American Society on Aging. In the first 15 years of its existence, WGS remained a parochial, volunteer-run organization centered in California's large cities. The field of gerontology, as it was beginning to be defined in the post-World War II United States, was an obscure, largely academic field.

James Birren, who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s to start one of the first full-fledged academic gerontology programs in the United States at the University of Southern California (USC), joined WGS in 1965. He became its president three years later. "In those days," he says, "[WGS] alternated meetings between San Francisco and Los Angeles. We didn't have many members who traveled to the meetings, so participants mostly represented local enterprises."

Yet even then, the professionals who attended the tiny one-day conferences reflected a characteristic that remains at the core of the organization: its focus on direct services to elders. Because WGS was so far from the powerhouses of academic gerontology and aging policy on the East Coast, the fledgling organization's meetings primarily attracted professionals in health and human services who did not have the time or means to attend national conferences-but who were just as hungry as academic gerontologists for knowledge about aging. According to Birren, most of these early WGS conferences brought speakers from the East Coast to talk about the medical, psychological and sociological aspects of aging.

In the words of Roy Van Orman (WGS president, 1976-77), who began traveling to WGS conferences from Utah in the late 19608, "[WGS] was a mom-and-pop organization that allowed professionals who were directly involved in service provision to compare notes, learn about new ideas, share notes on funding, talk about what kind of research ought to be conducted and find out what kinds of projects were functioning ... Meetings were also a chance to connect with each other and laugh."

The passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965 brought the field of aging to life, creating hundreds of new programs for older adults and putting millions of dollars into academic programs and government-funded services. Thousands of professionals, many of them just beginning their careers, joined the field of aging. Most had little or no formal training in gerontology.

Even though WGS had no paid staff, its conferences began to grow exponentially, and the organization's leaders began to discuss expanding its geographic scope to draw in members from the 18 westernmost states. …

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Asa Looks Back in 'Life Review' as It Celebrates 50 Years
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