Master’s in Gerontology Provides Strong Foundation for Senior Living Leadership

With a rapidly aging population in need of support, "professionals who can develop sound solutions and policies will be critical and in demand," says Sahar Edalati MS '13, associate executive director for The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights in New York.

In his first year out of graduate school, Sahar Edalati admits he went a little wild. If there was a tourist attraction, a show, an art opening, a museum exhibit – anything interesting or noteworthy happening around the LA area – he went. He, and the residents of a senior living center, where he’d gotten his first job as an activities director.

“We went to the Malibu Wine Safari,” he said. “We went for shows at the Wallis Annenberg Theater in Beverly Hills. We went to see Itzhak Perlman at Walt Disney Concert Hall. We did the most amazing things.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about the elderly, he said, is that age has somehow transformed them into people who only want to watch Jeopardy! after dinner, and head straight to bed.

“When we were done, at 11 o’clock at night, we’d go out to get ice cream and pizza,” he said. “There’s no difference in interest. They still want to have fun. They still want to have a good time.”

Edalati learned to respect and enjoy older adults growing up in a close-knit, extended family. Every Friday night, he had Shabbat dinner with both sets of Jewish grandparents, whom he was taught to treat with love and reverence. “In my family, if you go to your grandparents’ home and don’t kiss them on both cheeks, you get scolded when you get home,” he said.

He grew up on the East Coast and came west to go to USC on a scholarship. The campus experience prepared him well for the working world, he said. “The professionalism that you learn at USC is huge,” he said. He added on a masters in gerontology when the Davis School offered him the chance to complete an accelerated program in just one extra year of schooling. “My parents were like, ‘It’s free school. Go for it, it’s just a year,’” he said.

After he graduated, he figured he’d take the activities director job while he prepared to apply to medical school. But in the end, he was having way too much fun to change professions. Earning a Master’s degree from USC helped Edalati gain specialized knowledge in the field of senior housing management and also helped him develop a very valuable network of professional connections, both with fellow students – many of whom are now also industry leaders – and with professors and their professional contacts.

Edalati is currently an associate executive director helping prepare for the opening of The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn’s first luxury senior living community and Watermark Retirement Communities’ first property in New York City. Previously, he was the executive director of Sunrise Villa Culver City in Los Angeles, where he focused on ensuring that residents not only existed, but enjoyed their lives as well.

At Sunrise, each new resident who moves in was interviewed by Edalati’s staff to learn what their hobbies and interests were, what hobbies they used to partake in that they no longer felt they can, and what have they always desired to try but for whatever reason, hadn’t. Then each month, the facility tweaked the activities calendar to reflect the needs and desires of current residents.

For instance, Edalati recalled when many of the residents wanted to learn American Sign Language. There were some health obstacles: some had hearing impairment, others didn’t see well, still others struggled with recall. But learning and recall seems to be easier for everyone, Edalati said, when music is involved. So in Sunrise’s ASL class, instructors would play a song many residents already know, then residents could learn the sign language for that song. That way, he said, “I was able to teach a language in an unconventional way, and we weren’t calling out anyone for being at a different level of impairment.”

Gerontologists are especially prepared to understand the aging process and the unique challenges that aging individuals confront, he said.

“We understand the impact of an aging population on society. Studying these issues helped me gain a more compassionate outlook on seniors and society in general,” Edalati said. “Gerontologists can make the biggest impact by facilitating scientific studies of processes associated with the bodily changes from middle age through later life, facilitating multidisciplinary investigation of societal changes resulting from an aging population and ranging from the humanities (e.g., history, philosophy, literature) to economics, and by applying this knowledge to policies and programs.”

Edalati foresees many opportunities for people interested in pursuing careers in senior living, including in both the private sector and the public policy arenas, he said.

“Professionals who can develop sound solutions and policies will be critical and in demand because of the tremendous growth of the U.S. population aged 65 and older,” Edalati said. “Nationally, it is projected that the older population will double to 89 million by 2050 – a rate of growth that is twice as fast as in the population under age 50. The demand for professionals with expertise in gerontology will mirror these increases.”

In 2018, while he was at Sunrise, Edalati became one of the youngest people ever to be awarded Administrator of the Year by the National Center for Assisted Living at only 26 years old. It’s not hard to see why: his enthusiasm for his work is palpable. “It’s not just a career,” he said. “It’s a profession. I go to bed every night, knowing that even if I had a hard day, I helped someone. [There’s] nothing that beats that.”

Top photo: Sunrise Villa resident Barbara Hirsch and Sahar Edalati MS ’13 in 2019 (photo by Dario Griffin).