Feature Article

President’s message

Remembering James E. Birren (1918-2016).

By Harvey Sterns

When I wrote my column last October on remembering and acknowledging our mentors, I had no idea that I would continue this theme with remembering the mentor to all of us in Div. 20 — James E. “Jim” Birren. He was professor emeritus of psychology and gerontology, founding dean of the Andrus Gerontology Center and the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC). He also created the Andrew Norman Institute for Advanced Study in Gerontology and Geriatrics at USC. Later he would move to University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to organize the Borun Center for Gerontological Research and serve as associate director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

Jim was a pioneer in aging research and was considered by many to be the father of modern gerontology. He was a past president of the Gerontological Society of America. His death occurred on Jan. 15, 2016 at the age of 97. A memorial symposium is being planned for the APA Annual Convention in Denver. USC is also planning a memorial event to be held in April.

Jim served as president of Div. 20 in 1956-57 and in 1978 received the Distinguished Research Achievement Award from the division. His career spanned the history of Div. 20. He would often tell the story of how he attended the first meeting of Div. 20 in Detroit in 1947. At the first banquet, it was decided that the youngest member of the division present would be the guest of the division. That person was Jim Birren.

We have all benefited from his books and papers. The first “Handbook on the Psychology of Aging and the Individual” was edited by Jim and was published in 1959. This was the major graduate text for many of us until the “Handbook of Psychology of Aging” series began in 1977. Later there were many other books and papers with over 250 publications.

We are fortunate to have autobiographies written by Jim. One can be found in James E. Birren and Johannes J.F. Schroots (Eds.)’s (2000) “A History of Geropsychology in Autobiography” published by APA and another in 2006 in the LLI Review. Who better to tell his story than the person who wrote and talked about autobiography for over 30 years.

I have known Jim since my graduate school days at West Virginia, was a student in the 1969 Summer Institute in Gerontology at USC, and was invited by Jim to be a fellow of the Andrew Norman Institute for Advanced Study of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 1982-83 leading to the book “Age, Health and Employment.” He also involved me in the organization committee of the NATO Conference on Aging and Technology and later in the book that followed. He continued to be a friend and mentor over the years including a note congratulating me on my return as division president. I’m sure many others would like to pay tribute to Jim Birren. I will ask our newsletter editor, Grace Caskie, to provide an opportunity for statements in our next newsletter.

Looking Ahead to Denver

In this issue, as well as in the next newsletter issue, we will be giving information about our meeting in Denver. Wally Boot and Kathryn Judge have assembled a great program. Kathie Judge and I were successful in receiving a Committee on Division/APA Relations grant to present the following workshop: “Forty-five Years of Influence of the Lifespan Developmental Approach: Past, Present, Future.”

This special session will be presented at the 2016 APA Annual Convention resulting from a collaboration between Adult Development and Aging (Div. 20); Developmental Psychology (Div. 7) and Experimental Psychology (Div. 3), and supported by a grant from the Committee on Divisional APA Relations. The lifespan developmental approach has provided an overarching and vital framework for understanding human development from conception to death. This special set of sessions will provide a review, examination and discussion of the influence of the lifespan developmental approach across the past 45 years. A six-hour series of presentations and discussions will be hosted at the 2016 APA conference featuring speakers and a reaction panel that will address the following areas within lifespan development: 

  • Methodological issues.
  • Intervention, modifiability and plasticity.
  • Theoretical and conceptual approaches. 

Outcomes will include the development of a shared website that will house the keynote speakers’ papers and edited videos from the sessions along with a set of professional resources and instructional materials.

This program is still under development but already includes the following talks. 

Theoretical and conceptual approaches area:

  • A keynote by Willis (Bill) F. Overton — “Lifespan Developmental Paradigms and Meta-models: 1968-2016”
  • Manfred Diehl — “Modifiability of Middle Age and Older Adult Views of Aging”
  • Ursula Staudinger — “Plasticity of Human Aging” 

Methodological area:

  • Sara Czaja — “Methodological Challenges in Psychosocial Interventions”
  • Warner Schaie — “Methodological Issues in the Psychology of Lifespan Development”
  • Greg Smith — “Methodological Issues in Intervention with Grandparents”

Intervention and plasticity area:

  • A keynote by Cameron J. Camp — “Applied Lifespan Developmental Psychology: Lessons from Montessori and Neuropsychology”
  • Sherry Willis —  “Plasticity in Old Age: Influence of Lifespan Theory”
  • Boris Baltes — “Motivation for Working across the Lifespan”
  • Jackie Lerner — “Character Development in the Second Decade”

Please plan to join us.