Teaming up to learn how Boston’s elderly perceive getting older

Anthropology professor Sarah Lamb conducting research with Gianna PetrilloPhoto/Julian Cardillo '14

Anthropology professor Sarah Lamb (left) reviews research notes with Gianna Petrillo

Anthropology professor Sarah Lamb and her undergraduate research assistant, Gianna Petrillo ’19, have spent the past two years working together and leading a team of researchers to uncover how Boston’s elderly population views health and aging.

Through interviews with dozens of elderly people in the Boston area, Lamb and Petrillo have found that socioeconomic status plays a pivotal role in how older persons view the challenges of staying healthy as they age.

“From the start, we’ve looked at the public discourse on successful, healthy aging and whether people can make aging a good, healthy experience through their individual efforts,” Lamb said. “Gianna and I have been examining whether people believe that they can control their own healthy aging, and whether the outcomes vary depending on socioeconomic status.”

Lamb, who also studies health and aging among populations in India, enlisted Petrillo’s help in 2016 when she launched a course that doubled as a research lab to focus in on Boston’s elderly community. Petrillo, an anthropology and biology double-major, has been mentored by Lamb since her first semester at Brandeis. She took Lamb’s introductory course in anthropology in fall 2014 and has kept in close contact with her professor since, even by engaging in the longtime Brandeis tradition “Take Your Professor Lunch.”

When Lamb mentioned her research lab idea to study health and aging among Boston’s elderly population, Petrillo jumped at it. The lab, Lamb told her, would be a type of class which would cover many of the skills necessary in conducting studies of people, namely interviewing, social science coding and transcribing.

“Gianna has been truly wonderful to work with,” Lamb said. “She has been on this project with me for nearly two years and she is focused and brings energy and enthusiasm to the work. She’s been a huge help to me, particularly with the interview process, transcribing, and learning about proper coding techniques.”

Petrillo is on campus this summer continuing the research through a Stephen B. Kay Fellowship in Healthy Aging, which matches Brandeis students with funded training opportunities in research, policy, or management concerned with healthy living, health care, and long-term services and supports for older adults. She and Lamb recently presented some of their findings during a Social Science Research Lab lunch session, organized by sociology professor Wendy Cadge, in which students and faculty conducting research during the summer months share their progress and insight.

As for the research, Lamb has already published some scholarly articles on their findings. Though there is still more work to do through the remainder of the summer and fall, Lamb hopes that both she and Petrillo can submit a more comprehensive report on their findings in the near future.

Beyond that, Petrillo, who is also on the Pre-Med Track and hopes to one day work as an emergency room physician, has leaned on her experiences with Lamb and the healthy aging project as she completes her medical school applications.

“I have referred to our research at length in my applications, particularly in the personal statement,” Petrillo said. “The experience I’ve had working with the elderly helped me respond to other questions on the application, like ‘How have you gotten involved in your community?’ and ‘In what ways have you engaged with people unlike yourself?’”

Petrillo credits Lamb for her mentorship and the close bond they’ve formed as a faculty-student research tandem.

“Whenever I’m asked about my favorite professor, Sarah’s name comes to mind,” Petrillo said. “She has been so supportive throughout anthropology, though she’s done so much for me in general, whether it’s through research or helping me with applying to medical school.”

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