Dr. Kerry Burnight felt called to work with older adults before she was ever aware that gerontology was a field, let alone an in-demand profession. She was studying sociology and volunteering with seniors as an undergraduate student at UCLA when a lecturer spoke about the discipline and told her that the nation’s best program was just across town at the USC Leonard David School. Burnight drove to USC that very day to see for herself. Five years later in 1996, she earned her doctorate degree from the school and the job title that she uses to this day.
And when people ask, “what is a gerontologist?” she relishes the opportunity to more fully explain to just what that means.
“A gerontologist is a person who studies aging and our goal is to try to make aging a better experience for all of us,” she says. “And I think there’s like a million different ways to express your ‘gerontology-ness’,”
In fact, in her varied career she’s been a professor, a CEO, a non-profit founder, and now a tech executive. She says the diversity of her positions illustrates the vast career options available in the field.
“I honestly feel like the world is the oyster for undergrad, masters and PhD gerontologists, and the only thing that will hold you back is not going for it,” she says.
Not going for it has never been an issue for Burnight. After earning her doctorate in gerontology from the USC Leonard Davis School, she wrote herself into a grant — and a job — in elder abuse prevention at the University of California Irvine. Burnight served as a professor of geriatric medicine and gerontology there and spent 19 years working with pioneering geriatrician and elder abuse expert Dr. Laura Mosqueda, who is now a professor of family medicine, geriatrics and gerontology at USC.
During that time, she and Mosqueda founded the nation’s first elder abuse forensic center and a non-profit organization called Ageless Alliance Against Elder Abuse. In 2011, the pair were honored by the U.S. Attorney’s office for their service to victims of crime. But Burnight still wanted to do more. She wanted to stop the abuse before it started. Her target: address the loneliness and isolation that make people more vulnerable.
“All things being constant being lonely or socially isolated puts you at greater risk for elder abuse and exploitation, but also at significantly greater risk for cognitive impairment, for stroke, for heart disease and even mortality,” she says. “So you’re 25% more likely to pass away than those who are not lonely. That’s something we can do something about.”
Burnight sought a scalable solution and thought technology could help. She connected with Orange County-based start-up GrandPad. She is now their Chief Gerontologist, a position that allows her to help ensure that GrandPad’s technology — a secure and customizable internet-connected tablet, meets the needs of older adults. She works with advisors ages 86-106 to make ensure optimal design and function. As a result, GrandPad screens are easier to tap, charge and operate than traditional tablets; they turn on automatically and can be customized to each user in advance. For example, each GrandPad can be kept updated with users’ favorite songs and the photos of the people they can contact just by touching their image.
“Da Vinci says that the greatest sophistication is simplicity,” she says. “And it’s true, the hardest thing in the world that you can do is to create something simple, and it’s not because seniors are less than, it’s because we have listened.”
She is also working with companies such as Lyft for transportation assistance and conducting research with universities, including USC studies that are looking at uses of GrandPads for telehealth and after hospital discharge. When they need assistance, Burnight says GrandPad subscribers are able to connect to a live member experience agent that is assigned specifically to them.
“I have somebody that I work with [who] has cognitive impairment, and the only thing that really is soothing to her in this late stage of Alzheimer’s disease is music,” says Burnight. “And it’s not just any music but certain hymns that she sang when she was a little girl. So we have all those hymns, and her daughter, if she finds any, all she has to do is call the member experience and they push those songs right to her.”
The system’s flexibility and prioritization of the needs of older adults is much like Burnight’s description of the field of gerontology and the need for gerontologists in our society.
“You can literally do anything you’re interested in because aging is living,” she says. “My aspect now is human connection and technology. But you if you’re interested in food, if you’re interested in transportation, if you’re interested in entertainment… In my opinion, any facet of being a human in this time of demographic revolution needs a gerontologist to really be thinking about it in a systematic way from what it means from an aging perspective.”
One of Burnight’s three children has followed her footsteps; her daughter Claire is an undergraduate at the USC Leonard Davis school. Burnight’s message to her and to all future gerontologists is the one she received before a speech she was nervous to give before an audience of 1000 people. An older woman told her to get out of her own way and deliver the speech.
“That really struck me,” she says. “All you have to do is spend time with older adults and then you realize you don’t have the luxury of being shy because it’s not about you, it’s about what you can do to serve. You need to get out of your way because if you’re going to help aging and our own aging, then you better get to work.”
Learn more about Burnight’s perspectives on leveraging technology for older adults by listening to the latest episode of the Lessons in Lifespan Health podcast.