Elaine M. Brody, pioneering scholar of gerontology, dies at 91


Elaine M. Brody, a pioneering scholar of gerontology, died July 9, 2014, at 91. (Courtesy of the Abramson Center for Jewish Life)
July 27, 2014

Elaine M. Brody interviewed people for admission to a Philadelphia nursing home, but the ones who especially worried her were the family members who brought them in.

They were, by and large, women in their middle years, the daughters and daughters-in-law who were “overburdened and stressed” from tending to elderly parents while also taking care of children and, increasingly, working outside the home.

Mrs. Brody called them “women in the middle,” sandwiched between two generations that required the women’s attention. This group would grow over the decades, causing a cascade of social issues that Mrs. Brody was nearly alone in recognizing when she began her work in the late 1950s.

“There is a negative impact on the health and financial status of some of these women, but the most severe and pervasive effects,” she later wrote, “are emotional strains such as anxiety, depression, frustration, conflict, anger, feelings of guilt about not being able to ‘do it all,’ and stress from trying to do so.”

Mrs. Brody, a social worker whose studies of older Americans and their caregivers helped to establish the field of gerontology, died July 9 at her home in San Mateo, Calif., said her daughter, Laurel Ann Brody. She was 91. The cause of death was not disclosed.

A prolific researcher during a career that spanned six decades, Mrs. Brody wrote more than 200 academic papers and six books, including “Women in the Middle: Their Parent Care Years” (1990), which examined the trends, pressures and values causing crises in the lives of women caring for older family members.

When Mrs. Brody began her studies, “older people in the public eye were seen as poor, sick [and] isolated,” said Barry D. Lebowitz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego who for many years oversaw geriatric research at the National Institute of Mental Health.

“She said most older people are deeply embedded in the lives of families and the family is really the thing we ought to be talking about,” Lebowitz noted. “And when we talk about family, we mean the daughter.”

Although Mrs. Brody recognized that some sons are caregivers, the case studies in “Women in the Middle” illuminated the dilemma.

“My two brothers and I are attorneys,” one of the women featured in the book told her. “When our mother, who lives in Florida, fractured a hip, everyone assumed that I would fly down and stay for a while. My brothers are good sons, but my suggestion that we take turns met with surprise.”

Another misconception Mrs. Brody exposed was “that adult children nowadays do not take care of their elderly parents as was the case in the good old days,” she wrote in a widely cited paper published in 1985.

She found that “families nowadays provide more care, more difficult care, and care over longer periods of time to more older people than was ever the case before,” she told the New York Times in 1985, when she was director of human services at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, now known as the Abramson Center for Jewish Life.

Elaine Marjorie Breslow was born in New York on Dec. 4, 1922. Her father was a dentist, and her mother was his bookkeeper. She graduated from City College of New York in 1942 and in 1943 married Stanley J. Brody, who became a noted expert in aging and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Brody received a master’s in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1945, but after her husband returned from Navy service during World War II she devoted herself to raising their two children.

Her husband died in 1997. Survivors include two children; four granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1957, when her children reached school age, Mrs. Brody took a part-time job doing intake interviews at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center.

She hesitated to take the job because her graduate training had focused on children, but she plunged in and, as she later observed, “I ended up working with parents and children as I had planned, though the parents were old and the children middle aged.”

The center later created a research unit, now called the Polisher Research Institute, where Mrs. Brody became associate director. Over the years, it became a model of comprehensive care and services for older adults.

Mrs. Brody spent 31 years at the center, retiring in 1988. She later moved to Phoenix and then to California.

One of her contributions at the Philadelphia center was establishing a group residence for elderly women who needed some assistance but not full-time care. That living arrangement “sounds so typical and ordinary to us now,” Lebowitz said, “but in those days, the early 1970s, this was considered revolutionary.”

Mrs. Brody, who was named one of Ms. magazine’s “Women of the Year” in 1986, often spoke about taking care of her mother — a strong-minded woman who once refused a doctor’s prescription for Valium because it meant she wouldn’t be able to worry. She lived to be 99.

Although Mrs. Brody spent much of her life studying other people’s reactions to aging, she was unsettled by the realization that she was no longer the observer but the subject.

“I do not remember becoming old,” she told a gathering of the Gerontological Society of America in 2009, when she was 86. “All of a sudden, I was there.”

— Los Angeles Times

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