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Inside the mind of student HDFS researcher Shelbie Turner

How much do the goals you have throughout your life impact your health in later years? Shelbie Turner, a PhD student studying human development and family sciences, is seeking answers.

Shelbie Turner

By Kathryn Stroppel

How much do the goals you have throughout your life impact your health in later years? Shelbie Turner, a PhD student studying human development and family sciences, is seeking answers.

Continue reading to learn more about Shelbie’s HDFS research, including the health of those caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and her insights for students interested in the field of human development and aging. 

Why did you want to come to Oregon State, and what do you think of your decision? 

My bachelor’s degree is in human development, and I have a Master of Public Health degree. So, I was intrigued by the idea that Oregon State’s HDFS PhD program was housed within its College of Public Health and Human Sciences. I thought it was the perfect way to blend my two interests. 

Prior to coming to Oregon State, I had a longstanding interest in how intergenerational relationships shaped the views people had toward their older selves. But I always felt like that was only half of my question; I thought there was something else, but I couldn’t quite grasp it.

When I found out about the existence of a whole field of scholarship connecting views on aging to health, I knew how to put the pieces together. Eventually, I concluded that I wanted to study how relationships with people older than us shape our thoughts on our own older selves and, in turn, how those thoughts shape our behavior. 

By coming to Oregon State, I knew I would be able to more deeply consider that second part: How do views on aging shape behavior? Alongside Professor Karen Hooker, I knew I would learn more about possible selves and motivation in later life, for example. And I was right! A lot of my work with Karen has centered around views on aging and health-related goal pursuit. I was also excited to learn from Professor Rick Settersten about how the social world plays a role in my interests. Rick’s work on the concept of linked lives, for example, has helped enrich my understanding of how social relationships impact motivation. 

Also, moving from the East Coast to Oregon felt like an adventure. I wasn’t wrong! I have enjoyed learning the ins and outs of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.  

Tell me about your NIH grant and HDFS research.

My NIH grant is administered by the National Institute on Aging. It is an R36 dissertation grant that provides financial support to ensure I have the time, equipment and other supplies and materials needed to successfully conduct my dissertation study. 

My project is titled The ACHIEVE Study, with ACHIEVE standing for Assessing Caregiver Health in Everyday Contexts. As a part of the study, caregivers are identifying their own physical activity goal to work on for a month. Each day for 30 days, they report back to us on how much progress they made toward their goal, along with what their caregiving experience was like that day and how they are thinking about their own older selves. 

Many adults are finding themselves spending extended time – often years –caring for older parents with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. Many of these adult-child caregivers are middle-aged women who are still working full-time jobs, and some are still caring for children. Taking care of your health is challenging enough; imagine trying to stay healthy when you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

It makes sense that caregivers often report their health declining. Researchers can play a big role in supporting caregivers’ health. The ACHIEVE study will help us get a better understanding of how caregivers pursue their health goals alongside their care responsibilities. We can use knowledge gained from the ACHIEVE Study to design new person-centered programs and interventions focused on heath goal pursuit for caregivers. 

Also, focusing on caregivers helps me bring all of the pieces of my research interests together. Caregivers are closely connected to older adults. An adult-child caregiver’s day-to-day interactions with their parents likely impact how they perceive their own self in later life. And, those thoughts may, in turn, shape their goal pursuit. 

So, as a part of the ACHIEVE Study, we are also capturing how caregivers think of their own aging and how those thoughts serve as motivators for their health goal pursuit. 

What does your human development research entail? 

Right now, my work meets at the intersection of motivation, views on aging, health behavior, and intergenerational relationships. I am interested in how relationships with older adults shape younger people’s thoughts on their own older selves and, in turn, how those thoughts motivate them to engage in health behavior.  

Zoomed in even further, my focus is on the hopes and fears people in late mid-life have about their upcoming older adulthood, and how those hopes and fears drive their health behavior to either achieve who they hope to be or avoid who they fear becoming.  

“Good morning from the younger version of you, who couldn’t wait to be you at this age right now. Good night from the older version of you, who remembers the very moment you are in right now and is grinning from ear to ear, because you have no idea about the wonders ahead.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda

What motivates you to do research studies in human development and aging? 

I have always been fascinated by how people think about who they will be in the future – whether the future is tomorrow or a year from now or 10 years from now. From the time I was a child I was captivated by the goals people had for their lives. Who did they want to be? I am drawn to those cheesy stories of people reflecting back on when they were dreaming of becoming who they are now. 

This happens a lot with people who are accomplished in music, entertainment or sports. But all of us have experiences of working toward a goal. And, when you ask older adults who they want to be in the future, they have answers – a lot of them!  

When I found out how strongly older adults’ future thoughts can impact their actual health, I was even more fascinated in the power of goals and dreams to impact our lives. 

What current projects are you working on related to your research? 

In addition to the ACHIEVE Study, I am partnering with researchers all over the country on a variety of projects. I’m working with researchers at Ohio State University and Virginia Tech to evaluate intergenerational programming, and with researchers at Washington State University to study how people anticipate their care needs in later life.

My experiences at OSU have helped me provide value to these other teams. My colleagues elsewhere often comment on the excellent training I am receiving at OSU. 

I have also been fortunate to work with researchers across the globe. Even though most 2020 conferences were virtual, I was still able to develop meaningful colleagueship at national conferences this year. I’m currently collaborating with researchers in Europe as a part of The Protect Study, a UK-based study on healthy aging.  

What other projects are you involved with? 

Outside of research, I have a leadership position with the Gerontological Society of America’s Emerging Scholars and Professionals Organization (ESPO), and I’m on the Society for the Study of Human Development’s Emerging Scholars Committee. 

What’s your vision for the future, and how will you help achieve it? 

I draw a lot of inspiration from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is the creator of the Broadway show Hamilton. Lin authored a book that includes quick little good morning and goodnight messages, which I have on my nightstand.

My favorite message goes as follows: “Good morning from the younger version of you, who couldn’t wait to be you at this age right now. Good night from the older version of you, who remembers the very moment you are in right now and is grinning from ear to ear, because you have no idea about the wonders ahead.” 

To use Lin’s goodnight message: I want people to be excited and hopeful for the “wonders ahead” in old age. That’s a tall task, though! You hear of young kids excited to be teenagers, and teenagers excited to be young adults. But how often do you hear of middle-aged people excited to be old?! I don’t want people dreading the inevitable.

A huge part of this is showing people that old age is not all bad and that they can achieve who it is they want to be in old age. In fact, older adults can do some things better than younger people can! 

But, it may be less about what individual people can do, and more about what we as a society can do to help older adults feel capable of achieving their goals.

Are there community supports in place for older adults? For example, are communities “age-friendly?” Are policies at all levels of government reflective of the realities of older adults’ lives?

As a society, we shouldn’t make something as natural as aging more challenging than it needs to be – it’s not something to be conquered, but rather something to embrace and value. 

Do you have any advice for prospective students in the field? 

I would encourage students to integrate sticking to their gut with embracing new and different ideas. In my first term here, Assistant Professor Kelly Chandler told us that when you are introduced to so many new ideas as a student you can feel like a kid in a candy shop. Maybe you originally go in for the Skittles, but then you learn about M&Ms and you want those instead. Then you learn about Starburst and you want those instead. Soon, you are overwhelmed and exhausted from bouncing around, and you haven’t even enjoyed any candy yet. I have found that it is best for me to often ask myself how I can embrace a new idea without bailing on my old ones. 

At its core, my dissertation study represents the interests I had with me when I came to OSU. But my time at Oregon State has offered me new language to describe my interests, and new methodologies to answer my research questions. I never imagined, for example, that I would be doing things like collecting data daily. To be honest, I’m not even sure I knew that researchers did that. 

But working closely with Karen, Kelly and Associate Professor Rob Stawski, all of whom are versed in daily data collection, has enabled me to study my interests in new and innovative ways.  

Learn more about Oregon State’s human development and family studies doctoral program. Request information.