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Report on the GSA conference
“Creative Approaches to Healthy Aging”, Gerontological Society of America 62nd Annual Scientific Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, 18-22 November 2009
(MP Sullivan, C Victor, J Twigg and W Martin, Small 1994 Olympic park)
statue of one of the majors of Atlanta very near to Martin Luther's birthplace and museum
A Martin-Matthews, M Gilhooly, J Philips, C. Hennessy, JA Bichard, S Venn, L Lloyd. Taken at the UK

It’s not quite 7am and after walking the lengthy corridors of the adjoining hotels, I’m ‘lining up’ to register for my first GSA conference. The young woman behind the desk smiles with enthusiasm and says, “Welcome to Altanta and how y’all doin’?”  I return her smile, take the bag she offers and securely stick the new member ribbon to my name tag, and then timidly ask for directions to my first session. As I turn to leave to make my way to the ‘Meet & Greet’ for new members, she yells to me, “Have a good conference!” 

GSA, as previously described, is delivered on a grand scale.   Its imposing venue, 240 page program, 4000 delegates, extensive coverage of the latest in ageing research, various receptions with free food and drink, and massive exhibitor hall is impressive to say the least. American stars and stripes confidence fills the air. Coca Cola, Starbuck’s, Dunkin Donuts, chocolate peanut butter cups, chilli cheese hotdogs and heavily salted French fries linger in a curiously relaxed atmosphere. BSG delegates (and there are many), seemingly keen despite their jetlag, wander to and fro sharing whispered observations about the various paper sessions they have attended.  

As usual I start each early morning in the queue for a skinny latte and reassurance from a Starbuck’s employee that I’ll ‘have a good day’. Today’s well-attended 8am session focused on late life social integration and loneliness. As I sip my latte and reflect on the speaker’s affirmation that loneliness in older age is not a myth, I recognize my delight as I listen to the very passionate and extensively published Jenny de Jong-Gierveld share findings about her recent exploration of older couples living apart and together.  

I cannot stay behind to network with other delegates, however, as I’m anxious to get to the Marquis Salon for 10am for the GSA Donald P. Kent Award presentation – an annual award ‘for exemplifying high standards of professional leadership in gerontology through teaching, service and interpretation of gerontology to the larger society’. Pushing my way through the crowd like I was at an Otis Redding or Travis Tritt concert, I manage to find a seat despite 400 others trying to do the same.  I sit and strategically plan how I’ll introduce myself to this year’s recipient, social work academic Barbara Berkman, Columbia University. You see, Barbara and I have an electronic relationship.  I’ve been following her achievements as one lead for the $34 million Hartford Foundation Geriatric Social Work Initiative, and she recently agreed to attend BSG 2010 to disseminate these achievements to a UK audience.  Suddenly, she is in front of me, and before I can say hello she extends her hand. We exchange a few words, but I’m soon pushed aside as others try to grab her attention.  And then silence falls as she approaches the podium. Soon cheers and applause echo through the room, and I’m suddenly emotional as various Hartford Social Work Scholars stand, one-by-one, and nod their head in recognition of Barbara’s work.  

Before I know it, I’m off again. This time I’m exploring the Exhibitor Hall where I know the coffee is free, oh, and donuts too.  At the first stand I’m again overwhelmed when two women welcome me like I’m already a famous gerontologist. I soon realise that it’s the ‘United Kingdom’ on my name tag and the special status they afford to an international colleague. Polite, but less enthused after hearing my Canadian accent, I grab a pen, a pencil, a ruler, post-it notes, a fridge magnet, shoe laces, a heart-shaped key ring (complete with light), and a mint dispenser. “Cheerio”, I say, and then hurriedly move through the remainder of exhibitors – my new English accent working a charm. 

The two afternoon sessions on grandparent caregivers, while interesting, were disappointing. I was keen to learn more about this area of research given the volume of work being presented.  However, the very apparent American preference for quantitative methods (even over mixed methods) began to make me feel uneasy. I almost forgot that these researchers were talking about people – the human face of caregiver stress had seemingly been lost in regression analysis and/or statistical significance. 

My days followed a similar pattern all made complete when meeting up with old and new friends for either lunch or dinner. Did I take any time to enjoy Atlanta? 

Atlanta appeared to be no different than most American cities – an organised grid of streets running north and south or east and west, straight lines of contemporary architecture apparently hiding all of Atlanta’s citizens, occasional ‘drug free’ green areas (one celebrating the 1994 Olympics) often dotted with small groups of homeless men, and opportunities to worship on almost every corner.  But most disappointing, not one shopping mall or department store within walking distance of the hotel.  

Our wanderings eventually let us to the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site.  Here, the simple and unassuming presentation of the life of the leader of the civil rights movement inspired reflection as it’s impossible to escape his “I have a dream”. Similarly, the Jimmy Carter Library poignantly presents the achievements of the peanut farmer who became 39th President. Like Martin Luther, his humanitarian efforts leave you contemplating how much the world has changed in the last few decades. 

Tired, but inspired, we all left Atlanta on a very “rainy night in Georgia”. Next year we will swap the blues of Atlanta for the dazzling jazz of New Orleans. Hope to see you there.

I would like to thank Professor Mary Gilhooly for her generous support to ensure I made it to Atlanta and her networking tips while we were there.

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