Where Gerontology Meets TV Production: A Master’s Student’s Mashup

Tim Deal MSG is passionate about both gerontology and TV production. His path has taken him between the two. The sweet spot is where they intersect.

In 2018, Tim Deal worked as a Production Assistant on the set of Netflix’s Dead to Me. One of his job duties was assisting legendary actor, Ed Asner, who was then in his late 80’s. “No one disrespected Ed, but they talked to him in raised voices,” Deal says. “He liked me because I talked to him like a typical adult.” With a Master of Science in Gerontology, Deal knows how to talk to older adults.

Deal’s interest in gerontology began when he was an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For his senior internship, he volunteered in the dementia unit of a long-term care facility. Deal recalls, “I played the piano and sang with the residents for 10 weeks. At the end, a woman who had been mute for 18 years asked me for a glass of orange juice.”

Deal dove into the research on how music impacts brain function. This led him to the work of neurologist and well-known author Oliver Sacks. Deal emailed Sacks and told him about the woman in the dementia unit and inquired about research opportunities. Sacks replied, “You want to look into gerontology.”

Deal quickly found the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, applied and was accepted. Before long, he was living a full graduate student lifestyle — taking classes, doing research and working as a teaching assistant.

World-class research in aging

The USC Leonard Davis School is the most renowned school of gerontology in the world. Faculty are at the leading edge of aging research and innovation. Students are active collaborators in this research and are helping transform the field.

Deal spent two years working in the lab of USC Distinguished Professor Kelvin Davies. Davies’ research focuses on the biochemistry and genetics of aging processes. In the lab, Deal studied a protease (an enzyme that breaks down proteins) that plays a role in aging. Deal describes the work as groundbreaking.

In addition to research, the USC Leonard Davis School offers students access to many lectures and seminar series. “People who are pioneering the field of gerontology come here to share their ideas and research,” Deal says. There were also lectures from entrepreneurs who were starting their own nursing home companies. These piqued Deal’s interest in the administrative side of gerontology.

A curriculum that inspires new ways of seeing the world

USC Leonard Davis School coursework explores all aspects of lifespan development. The Master of Science in Gerontology program focuses on policy and research. Students take classes in physiology, psychology, applied policy and more. Deal recalls the class that impacted him the most was GERO 437, “Social and Psychological Aspects of Death and Dying,” with Associate Professor Susan Enguidanos. He calls the learning experience “profound.”

Adding to the content of the classes are the students themselves. The gerontology programs have students of all ages and backgrounds. In Deal’s cohort, there were people his age as well as retired older adults. “Our group discussions had this great range because we had all levels of experience taking the classes,” Deal says.

“I started college wanting to be a doctor,” Deal says. “Instead, I found gerontology and it was what I personally needed. I realized I didn’t need to become a doctor to help people.”

From gerontology to TV

After graduating in 2015, Deal worked in a nursing home while he pursued his Nursing Home Administrator License. However, life events changed his course several times, and Hollywood called to his creative side.

In 2019, he was accepted into the competitive Directors Guild of America Assistant Directors Training Program. After almost a year, COVID-19 hit and TV production shut down. Deal went back to the nursing home as a facility screener. There he monitored everyone coming into the facility for COVID-19 symptoms and enforced the strict access rules for nursing homes.

With TV production now back up and running, he’s back on the set, but still picks up shifts at the nursing home. Down the line, Deal would love to incorporate his gerontology expertise into his TV production work. He has an idea for a show based in a long-term care facility. He says senior care settings need to look more realistic on TV.

Deal is also not ruling out another run at his Nursing Home Administrator license. “Life’s funny,” he says. “Sometimes things don’t work out. You need to have your wits about you and pivot quickly. Right now, I make television, but I’m still a gerontologist. It’s still what I want to do full time in the end.”

To learn more about the Master of Science in Gerontology degree program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, call us at (213) 740-5156.