Robert Kahn

by Susan Rosegrant
March 2009

On the evening of November 6, 2006, Bob Kahn’s professional life and personal fortunes converged in a single, devastating moment. For the previous 22 years, Kahn’s research had focused on the challenges of aging well, and in 1998 Kahn had co-authored a landmark book titled Successful Aging. At age 88—with his quick smile, level gaze, and firm handshake—he seemed the living embodiment of his work. The research scientist and professor emeritus walked or drove to his office at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan every day. He and his wife Bea, also 88, had recently celebrated their 66th anniversary. And Kahn—a compact man with an unstoppable appetite for work—was launching into a new project on aging societies for the MacArthur Foundation.

That evening, heading to a rendezvous with friends at a nearby restaurant, he and Bea parked their car on the 3rd level of a downtown Ann Arbor parking garage, and strolled to the elevator. Before they reached it, a car rounding the corner too fast plowed into them. Bea suffered a deep gash in one leg and compression fractures in her cervical vertebrae. Kahn’s injuries were worse. His left leg was shattered, and a skull fracture and brain bleeds left him at risk of memory loss and other cognitive problems. It was an accident that could have derailed a 20-year-old, let alone a man of 88. As his long rehabilitation began, Kahn challenged himself to apply the lessons of his own book to regain his health and get back to work.

In 1984, when the MacArthur Foundation approached Kahn about doing some work on aging, he wasn’t particularly interested in gerontology. “I didn’t know anything about aging except that I was getting old,” he says drily. Kahn, a Detroit native, had earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in English from Michigan, then worked as a substitute teacher in Detroit when he couldn’t get a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. To bring in extra cash, Kahn took a part-time job as an interviewer for a monthly survey of unemployment. A year later, he became the full-time supervisor of this research for the state of Michigan, gathering and analyzing data on unemployment and related issues. He proved a natural, and in 1942 the U.S. Census Bureau recruited him to the capital to work on its national data analysis. But as his understanding of survey methodology grew, Kahn became convinced that he needed a broader background in underlying concepts—psychology or sociology or political science. He wanted to dig deeper into survey research and he wanted a university career. In 1948 Kahn moved to Ann Arbor with his young family. Four years later he received his Ph.D. in social psychology from Michigan, all the while working full time at ISR.

Kahn became best known for his pioneering work on organizational theory. His signature 1966 book, The Social Psychology of Organizations, written with fellow ISR founder Daniel Katz, had a major influence on the field of organizational research, applying a framework of open system theory—the assumption that an organization continuously interacts with its environment—to research on leadership, role behavior, and organizational effectiveness.

Most research on organizations concentrated on the contributions of individual members to the effectiveness of organizations. But Kahn, a social psychologist, was also more broadly interested in the impact of an organization’s demands and opportunities on its members—for example, how individuals were affected by the content of the work they did, and how their well-being was influenced by the availability and perception of social supports—the network of emotional, physical, and practical supports that individuals turn to in times of need. ISR Senior Research Scientist Toni Antonucci, who first worked with Kahn in the 1970s, says that Kahn—a mentor to herself and others—had a breadth not common in psychologists, and was, above all else, committed to applying psychological principles to real world problems. “Not all psychologists and not all sociologists were doing that,” she says. “My fondest memories of Bob are of sitting around and talking about ideas.”

Given his range of interests, Kahn was intrigued by the MacArthur Foundation’s proposal to fund a small, interdisciplinary group of research scientists to do something innovative in the field of aging. After meeting some of the other participants—neurologists, geneticists, psychologists, neurobiologists—he was invited to join them and agreed to do so. “We struggled at first,” Kahn says. “Bring together a bunch of academic researchers and each of us is tempted to describe, often in detail, what we are already doing and what we would like to do next.” But the group persevered, and soon launched a substantial research review to see what it could add to the field. “We were struck by the fact that most gerontology research concentrated on losses and described them in terms of averages,” Kahn remembers. “We thought we’d concentrate on variability and why it is that people age so differently, and what enables some people to do better than most.”

What followed were almost 10 years of research, ranging from human and animal brain studies, to studies of high-functioning elders meant to tease out the factors predictive of successful aging, to examinations of hundreds of pairs of Swedish twins to separate nature from nurture in how they aged. In 1987, Kahn and John W. Rowe, a geriatrician who chaired the MacArthur group, published an article in the journal Science that described the group’s approach and asserted the need for a “new gerontology” with successful aging as a central concept. Dozens of scholarly articles followed, gradually enlarging the range and depth of the gerontological agenda. (In 1988, Kahn turned 70, then the compulsory age of retirement. He “retired.” Then he continued working.) Kahn and Rowe decided to write a book that would bring the MacArthur findings and other recent research on aging to a broader readership. Successful Aging came out to broad acclaim in 1998, the year Kahn turned 80.

Central to the book is the idea that individuals have a powerful say in how long and how well they live. As the authors say, “we were trying to pinpoint the many factors that conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair.” Kahn doesn’t deny that genetics play an important role, as does schooling; elderly people with more education are more likely to avoid cognitive decline.

But, he insists, equally important are factors like diet, exercise, mental stimulation, social engagement, social support, and a belief in one’s own abilities to meet life’s challenges. (A few critics charged that by calling a certain pattern of aging successful, the authors implied that most of the population had failed. “The dictionary is kinder than that,” Kahn says. “It talks about success as flourishing, not as a kind of Olympic trial in which there’s only one gold medalist.”) It is a testament to the persuasiveness of the MacArthur group’s research that many of the ideas put forward in the book have become broadly accepted in the 10 years since it was published.

With the book completed, Kahn and some of his MacArthur colleagues wanted to take the research to the next level: to test in large-scale field experiments whether adopting the behaviors identified in the book would affect how people aged. The MacArthur Foundation wouldn’t take on the project, but in 2002 the retired CFO of the foundation, who had begun operating retirement communities in Florida, agreed to fund experimental research at two of them.

To test the theories, researchers at the facilities introduced a number of changes “modestly titled” Masterpiece Living, Kahn says. They improved the quality of food in the dining rooms, provided nutritional information, beefed up fitness areas, hired and trained coordinators, and organized small feedback groups for the elderly participants—who were regularly assessed on gait, balance, arm strength, and other measures of independent mobility. Participants answered survey questions about what they were doing, what behaviors had changed, and how they felt. A contract with the Mayo Clinic gave each person an assessment of her or her scores on medical and behavioral risk factors. Residents also were invited to meet in small groups for discussion of these findings, their reactions to them, and their plans for the future. Some paired off to work toward their goals.

Kahn says the data were encouraging. Over a three-year period, participants ranging in age from the late 60s to the 90s showed a pattern of stability and small gains. That might seem modest, but “in old age, maintenance is an accomplishment,” Kahn says. National data on individuals in that age range show, on average, a marked decline in function in a comparable three-year period.

In 2006, while working to extend the retirement community research, Kahn attended an exploratory meeting to consider the formation of a new MacArthur research initiative, this time on societies in which increasing proportions of the population are elderly. Then came the collision, and the frenzied trip in the ambulance. After ten days in the hospital and two surgeries, Kahn was weak, wheelchair-bound, and unable to walk. His memory was not impaired, but even small tasks requiring coordination—tying his shoes, for example—were difficult. The author of more than 150 books and articles was far from resuming professional activity. Instead, he faced the grim prospect of weeks or months of rehabilitation, much of it in a rehab facility of some kind.

At that dark point, Kahn’s three daughters—an attorney in public interest law in New York, a clinical psychologist in Wisconsin, and a medical sociologist in Vermont—organized a structure of social support that Kahn had never contemplated. “When I got out of the hospital, our family decided that instead of my going to a rehabilitation unit, they would take turns taking leave from their jobs so that there would be one person in residence with Bea and me until we were able to function on our own,” Kahn says, moved almost to tears by the memory.

Against this backdrop of family care, Kahn began to live the theories in his book. He ate well. He exercised his brain. Nurses and physical therapists came to the house. Neuropsychologists and psychiatrists gave him tests, including some familiar to him from his own research—listening to stories and later recounting three things that had happened; counting backward from 100 by sevens—and gradually but steadily he improved. Kahn began to venture suggestions when his daughters indulged their passion for crossword puzzles. He did special exercises to strengthen and rehabilitate his leg. He visited often with family and friends. And, despite his age and the extent of the injuries, he never lost his sense of self-efficacy—the belief that he could meet the challenge.

Kahn’s recovery was a profound success. The progress—from wheelchair to walker to four-pronged cane, and from cast to walking boot to street shoe—that had seemed so painfully slow is now a memory. In fact, he now views the accident as a temporary setback. Once again, he moves confidently and has been back at work for months, writing grants to continue the aging research and to extend it to more communities. “I think we’ll get that funding,” says Toni Antonucci, who works with Kahn on the project.

At age 90, Kahn has cut back some, but he’s still in his office by 9:30 each day at the institution where he has worked for 60 years. (Kahn deadpans that the phenomenon of several nonagenarian researchers who still show up at ISR could be “a previously unidentified form of senile dementia.”) Three afternoons a week he works out at the County Recreation Center, walking on the treadmill for almost two miles and lifting weights. Kahn and Bea still have good friends at ISR and in Ann Arbor, but social support primarily comes from family. “One of the penalties of living for a long time is that you lose the friends of your youth. The closest friends of my own age are gone,” Kahn says. “That’s tough and inevitable. It’s one of the costs of survival. But,” he adds, “Bea and I are fortunate—more than fortunate, blessed—with younger friends. We love their company and we try not to burden them.”

Asked about end-of-life matters, Kahn is frank, but not prone to dwelling on the dark side. “When you’re 90 years old, you are somewhere near the end of your life; got to be,” Kahn says. “It doesn’t feel like the end yet, but statistically, demographically, there can’t be much left. But that’s not part of my daily baggage.”

And life continues to surprise. When his daughters, son-in-law, and adult grandchildren took turns at home after the accident, Kahn, the father, was moved, while Kahn, the social psychologist, observed that their presence and generosity hastened his recovery. “The emotional effect of that is beyond words,” he says. In fact, given what he knows now, Kahn adds with a smile, “I think I could do a better chapter on social support.”