A new vision for the Population Aging Research Center

For more than 25 years, PARC has been a hub for work on disparities in aging and mortality. Co-directors Hans-Peter Kohler and Norma Coe, who took over in July, want to expand its reach.

Two older adults walking outside, wearing cold-weather gear, walking arm in arm across a bridge, trees in the background.

For more than two decades, the Population Aging Research Center (PARC) has been an interdisciplinary hub for Penn researchers working in the realm of aging. Their subject matter took on immediate urgency when, early in the pandemic, it became clear that COVID-19 was affecting older adults more than other age groups.

PARC research associates applied to this novel coronavirus what they knew about a plethora of subjects intersecting with population aging, domestically and internationally, ranging from economics and social networks to demography, health disparities, and the impact of the virus on the health care industry.

The array of topics was broader than it would have been even a year prior, thanks to a new vision for the center built on its existing strengths and expanded to include a partnership with Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and the Leonard Davis Institute (LDI). Demographer Hans-Peter Kohler of the School of Arts & Sciences and economist Norma Coe of Penn Medicine led the effort to secure an additional five years of funding from the National Institute on Aging and are co-directing PARC as it embarks on its next chapter.

“We wanted to expand outside of our classic strengths of disparities in aging and mortality to include Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias, to emphasize global aging, to look at caregiving across the life course more broadly,” says Kohler, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography and a professor of sociology. “We also wanted to grow the interdisciplinary nature of our center to tie in research that happened at the Medical School.”

For Coe, who studies the economics of aging and has been a PARC member since she arrived at Penn in 2017, the expansion made perfect sense.

“There’s such interesting work in economics and demography all over campus,” says Coe, an associate professor of medical ethics and health policy. “This new version of PARC will have a broader reach across campus. We’re going to leverage this to bring together bench and social scientists to come up with more research and better answers to the problems we have.”

Part of that will include greater resource-sharing. Restricted datasets, such as Medicare or geocoded data, for instance, were previously easier to access for some Penn researchers than others. Even such data living on campus servers didn’t necessarily guarantee access. “We’re going to bridge that gap,” Coe says. “It becomes much more cost effective if you can share data securely, compliantly, and efficiently.”

PARC also plans to give some $60,000 in grants each year for five years to faculty or graduate students and postdoctoral fellows working with faculty. “For the pilot grants, we want to be able to help facilitate interesting research,” says Kohler.

This new version of PARC will have a broader reach across campus. We’re going to leverage this to bring together bench and social scientists to come up with more research and better answers to the problems we have. Norma Coe, PARC co-director

The reimagined PARC has taken shape with the pandemic as its backdrop, forcing Kohler and Coe to reconfigure some of how they’d intended to get their vision off the ground. Instead of in-person get-togethers, they set up Zoom coffees, small video chats that allow PARC members to share insights about what they like about the center and new ways in which it can help forward their research.

Participants also discuss challenges they face and opportunities they see for growth, Coe says. “It’s been really useful to learn from them what the perceived strengths and weaknesses are. We can build upon those.”

In 2021, PARC will also host a series of “Aging Chats,” virtual for now, aimed at bringing together researchers who may not know each other but whose work overlaps. Each month will feature a different theme to foster collaborations between the center’s 48 members across the School of Arts & Sciences, Perelman School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Wharton School, and Law School.

Beyond PARC reaching a greater academic audience, Coe says she hopes the center can also start to reach policymakers more, with the help of expertise from LDI. “If people don’t read your work outside of academia, it’s going to stay in academia,” she says. “We want to help address issues, not just think about them.”

With all of this in mind, the research agenda will continue to take shape under the direction of Coe and Kohler.

“There has always been some cross talk and joint projects among researchers in our fields across demography and medicine,” Kohler says. “But we didn’t have an effective mechanism facilitating people talking to each other. Now we do. We want to be a catalyst for cross-school interdisciplinary work.”

To learn more about PARC, its affiliates, and ongoing research projects, visit www.aging.upenn.edu.