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Thomas Meuser

Q&A with Thomas Michael Meuser, PhD, from the University of Missouri - Saint Louis in St. Louis, Missouri

meuserMeet Tom.

“Honestly, I doubt I would be where I am today without these and other mentors in my life. I strive, now, to play the same role for others, as gerontology is a living and evolving field.”

Q: How long have you been a GSA member?  
A: I joined GSA in 1998 soon after taking my first faculty job in the field. I attend the annual meeting most years, and I am actively involved in the Transportation & Aging Interest Group. What I appreciate most about GSA is being part of a community of like-minded professionals. We all care about the well-being of aging adults, for sure, but we approach our studies and interventions from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. GSA is real melting pot in this sense. It is also an organization that builds bridges among people and projects. I can share my interests with a biologist, neuropsychologist and public policy expert all in the same gathering!  These interactions are fun, and they also hold potential for new thinking and discovery.

Q: How does GSA assist with your professional development?
A: Over the years, I’ve grown from being an observer and placid consumer of GSA to being more of an active participant in the organization. I’m about to relinquish my role as Lead Convener for the Transportation & Aging Interest Group (TAIG) – one of the larger and more active interest groups. I view my fellow TAIG members as my main “GSA family” but I have others, too. I used to do a lot in Alzheimer’s disease, and I look forward to reconnecting with these friends each year. I was honored to receive Fellow status in the Social Research, Policy and Practice Section (SRPP) a few years ago. I also serve on the editorial board for the AGHE journal, Gerontology & Geriatrics Education. GSA has provided an environment for me to learn and grow into the reasonably well-rounded professional I am today.

Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
A: I’ve gravitated to older adults and their stories all of my life. I credit my mother for this interest. She was an accomplished genealogist and loved collecting family stories. She made sure I knew my living and deceased forbears, not as grey haired faces in old pictures, but as real people. I went to a Jesuit High School – Fairfield Prep – and I chose to do my senior service project in a nursing home. Each week for a semester, I called on a retired postman in his 90’s; I can still see his face in my mind’s eye. Born in the 19th Century, his stories traversed an amazing swath of history and I soaked it up. I was hooked. In college, I majored in psychology and formed an intellectual scaffold on which to hang these many stories. My goal in graduate school was to become a clinical geropsychologist – which I did – and I practiced clinically for a time. I soon learned that I loved teaching and research more. Now I manage various gerontology degree programs both for undergraduate and graduate students, and I couldn’t be happier.

Q: Why is it important for other individuals to join GSA?
A: Older adults are a diverse group, with varied experiences, strengths and life challenges. I find this phase of life fascinating and something of a puzzle to figure out, both on individual and group levels. My expertise covers just part of the aging puzzle. There is so much I don’t know or comprehend fully. Other colleagues at GSA hold different specializations and see other connections. Membership in the GSA community allows both new and established professionals the opportunity to see the “whole” of the aging puzzle. This happens through networking, presenting, talking and doing the shared work of the organization. We join to learn, grow and make a difference for others together.

Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
A: I am something of a jack of all trades in the world of academia. I direct the Gerontology Program at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. We offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, with an emphasis on applied and service learning. Our Master of Science in Gerontology (MSG) is our flagship degree. I teach and manage pretty much all aspects of the program from teaching to setting our schedule to advising and placing students in the community. I also move furniture in classrooms, lug my LCD projector and other equipment to speak to community groups, and attend numerous committee meetings on campus. There’s never a dull day! In my spare time, I pursue research and other projects in which I strive to make a difference for others. Through my work on older driver safety, I was able to work with state officials in Missouri to implement and later evaluate a new approach to medical evaluation of at-risk drivers in 2009. I am very interested in reminiscence intervention, and I founded the UMSL Life Review Project in 2008. To date, my students and I have interviewed over 300 older adults about their live stories, providing free “Keepsake DVDs” for their families and promoting the transmission of personal legacies.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience in gerontology and aging research?
A: My dissertation focused on individual differences in grief response among widowed older adults. I extended this work to focus on the “living grief” of family caregivers of persons with dementia (i.e., the long goodbye). Some of my most cited and rewarding work occurred when I teamed with a former professor, Dr. Samuel Marwit, to quantify the experience of caregiver grief. A series of 16 focus groups in 1999-2000 led to a detailed paper on caregiver grief in The Gerontologist and the eventual formation of the MM Caregiver Grief Inventory; “MM” in this case for Meuser and Marwit. The full MMCGI and a subsequent short form are the accepted measures in the field for this unique grief process. I am very proud of this. We video recorded these focus groups, and I still show clips for teaching (with permission) in my teaching. Though years old, this work is still very much a living component of my professional experience and identity.

Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
A: Dive in head first! Work directly with seniors – not just existing or archival data – and ask questions that have meaning for people in their daily lives. You won’t regret it.

Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments?
A: I am kind of a late bloomer as a tenured faculty member. I am still an Associate Professor at the age of 53, but I am now being considered for promotion and I feel hopeful about the outcome. I am ready to branch out in new directions that continue my pattern of applied work that makes a difference in people’s lives. I want to share briefly about two projects:

  • Elder Voices on Ferguson. The death of Michael Brown from a gunshot fired by a police officer in 2014 rocked the greater St. Louis area and rippled across our nation. We have a vibrant aging services community, here, and it became apparent to many of us that older adults were absent from the media attention and protest activities of the time. We soon learned that some were afraid and/or unable to come out and participate. This was even true for older adults who were on the front lines of earlier civil rights battles. Dr. Nancy Morrow-Howell, Washington University in St. Louis, invited me to a meeting to form what later became the Elder Voices project. Our goals were to interview seniors in the Ferguson area about their aging experiences and needs, as well as race and racial justice. My part of the project focused on gathering life stories on camera. My students and I didn’t recruit as many participants as we hoped, but I’m proud that data posted to our website is adding to our national dialogue (see
  • I’m really excited about my latest project. I received a faculty exchange grant to work on a joint research project with colleagues at the University of the Western Cape, outside of Cape Town in South Africa. Our project is called Legacy Beliefs across Generations and we are presently recruiting older adult – adult child pairs to participate in interviews and questionnaires. A theoretic paper by prominent GSA members, Drs. Elizabeth Hunter and Graham Rowles, forms the foundation and the part of the analytic plan comes from another dyad project conducted by longtime friend and GSA member, Dr. Brian Carpenter. This work is part of my new agenda – hopefully as a full professor – to expand further into the reminiscence and life review fields. Findings from this project will have direct applicability to hospice interventions and fostering cross-cultural awareness.

Q: Have you had an important mentor in your career? If so, how did it make a difference?
A: Yes, and many. I am most fortunate in this area. An important early mentor was GSA member, Dr. Paula Hartman-Stein, PhD. She hired me on as a post-doctoral intern in her aging practice in 1996-7. Paula had an amazing work ethic, as she earned her living by billing for patient services and also by creating and offering specialized group experiences. My role in her practice was to assist with her nursing home contracts, conduct neuropsychological testing for dementia diagnosis, and otherwise lend a hand wherever needed. I was not always happy with Paula’s mentorship at the time, but I look back with different eyes now. I had never worked harder before in my life as I did with Paula. She pushed me. She taught me to trust my training and growing clinical judgment, and to do more than I ever thought possible. While I grumbled then, these lessons have stayed with me ever since and I am grateful to her influence now. Others I count as mentors include Drs. Martha Storandt, PhD and John Morris from Washington University and Dr. Pat Fontaine, MS from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. I see Pat for breakfast quarterly (or thereabouts) and his advice is always direct and on target. Honestly, I doubt I would be where I am today without these and other mentors in my life. I strive, now, to play the same role for others, as gerontology is a living and evolving field.

Want to ask Tom a question? Contact him on GSA Connect!

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