Voices may rise from conversational to impassioned. Sometimes the words carry an angry timbre, sometimes a laugh. The exchange is between family members discussing relocating the eldest to an assisted living facility, a subject that lends itself to drama — or even theatre, as is the case with an upcoming production of “I Did It My Way.”

This humorous, yet informative play about aging is part of a two-day celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology. The readers-theatre-style production, held at the Warm Hearth Village retirement community in Blacksburg on April 19, is the first event, followed by the 40th Anniversary Celebration and Awards Presentation on April 20 at the Inn at Virginia Tech. Both events offer engaging looks at topics affecting the aging population.

“We tell stories to teach things,” said Pamela Teaster, director of the center. “The practice is as old as time, and these stories can change people’s behavior for the better.”

This spring, the center is celebrating four decades of fostering and facilitating multidisciplinary research to enhance quality of life for older adults. The six core faculty members, 78 faculty affiliates, and 18 graduate students explore issues of family life, health, aging processes, and elder rights as they administer more than a dozen externally funded research projects. The center also serves as the administrative unit for the Graduate Certificate in Gerontology, a program of graduate study designed to offer learning experiences consistent with the recommendations of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.

The center opened in 1978 under the leadership of Founding Director S. Jewel Ritchey, now a dean emeritus of the Virginia Tech College of Human Resources, which eventually became absorbed into the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. William (Jim) McAuley became the center’s first full-time director in 1983, followed by Karen Roberto, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech who served as director from 1996 to 2016.

“The center has matured from a small multidisciplinary enterprise to one that engages faculty and students from across the university in interdisciplinary research that addresses aging from the view of individuals, families, communities, and societies,” said Roberto, who is also founding director of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. “Embracing the university’s land-grant mission and ties to Appalachia, the research programs provide important information for local communities as well as having national and international impact.”

The longest-serving core faculty member continues to be Rosemary Blieszner, who was the center’s associate director for 30 years and its acting director twice.

Rosemary Blieszner (right), now dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, discusses a research project with Emily Hoyt, a junior majoring in human development. Blieszner served as the center’s associate director for three of the center’s four decades.

“The center started with only four faculty involved in teaching a core course and organizing a small regional conference in the late 1970s,” said Blieszner, who is now dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Human Development at Virginia Tech. “The research focus took shape under Jim McAuley’s leadership, and in 1984–85, the Graduate Certificate in Gerontology was created — the first graduate certificate approved on campus. At least 100 students have since completed the program, with many assisted by center scholarships and professional travel funds.”

Pamela Teaster, who earned her own Graduate Certificate in Gerontology while pursuing her doctorate in public administration at Virginia Tech, joined the center as its third full-time director in 2016. Her research includes elder and vulnerable-adult abuse, public and private guardianship, end-of-life issues and decision-making, bioethics, and public policy. But it was her bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Tennessee that was the genesis for the collaboration with Warm Hearth Village.

While on the University of Kentucky faculty, Teaster joined with a member of the nursing faculty to research issues facing aging farmers. The collaborators learned that the best way to pass information to that population was to entertain them. So they embedded the information into a play and even cast several of the farmers to portray themselves. Although theatre and farming might seem an unusual mix, the program fostered positive interactions between the farmers and their advocates.

When Teaster became director of the Center for Gerontology, she brought the theatre idea with her. Warm Hearth Village staff member Linda Kirkner approached Teaster about a problem she hoped to address — the difficulty of moving loved ones from their homes into care settings. The two began to collaborate on a research-based theatrical production designed to help older adults and their families face decisions about retirement and health care.

Teaster worked with graduate students in gerontology to conduct research on the issue. Over the summer of 2017, the students conducted 30 interviews with local Blacksburg families and compiled the data for potential papers and conference posters.

Using that research, Warm Hearth staff members wrote “I Did It My Way” and directed the cast, which comprises research participants, Virginia Tech students, and community members.

Hosted by Warm Hearth Village at its Village Center (2387 Warm Hearth Drive, Blacksburg), from 7 to 9 p.m. on April 19, the evening program will also include networking opportunities over dessert. Each table will feature a host specializing in the gerontology field, such as Roberto and Blieszner, who will lead short discussions about topics related to gerontology.

One table host, Karl Pillemer, is also the guest speaker at the 40th Anniversary and Awards Celebration on April 20. A professor of human development at Cornell University and a professor of gerontology in medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, he will give a talk titled “Advice for Living from the Oldest (and Wisest) Americans,” based on his book of the same name. The volume is the culmination of his work with the Legacy Project, a collection of practical advice from older Americans who have lived through extraordinary experiences and historical events.

“Professor Pillemer is the perfect fit for our celebration,” Teaster said. “He talked to more than 1,500 older people about what they enjoyed and regretted in their lifetimes and compiled their answers into an uplifting book. In fact, one of our human development majors, Emily Hoyt, helped with his research.” Hoyt is a junior from Powhatan, Virginia.

In addition to Pillemer’s talk and a student awards ceremony, the April 20 event — held 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Latham Ballroom C at the Inn at Virginia Tech — will feature entertainment by PanJammers, a Blacksburg-based steel drum orchestra.

To learn more about the events, contact the Center for Gerontology at 540-231-7657 or gero@vt.edu.

Written and photographed by Leslie King