The Cross-Generational Friendship That Inspired a Life’s Work
A decades-long friendship taught a gerontologist that independence and dignity are worth fighting for.
It began in 1966 with a tap on Jon Pynoos’ door.
Dorothy Benton, a spry 73-year-old neighbor dressed in silk brocade, asked Pynoos, then a Harvard grad student studying urban planning, to join her for tea. Pretty soon, they were close friends.
Connecting with “Mrs. B.”—as Pynoos fondly calls her—created an unlikely intergenerational bond. It also diverted Pynoos’ career path.
Today, he is the UPS Foundation Professor in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. He has written six books and hundreds of articles on housing and the elderly, and advocates for “aging in place,” or seniors living independently as long as possible.
“Were it not for Mrs. B., I probably wouldn’t have been in the field of aging,” says Pynoos, who joined USC’s faculty in 1979. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have ended up at USC.”
It was Mrs. B. who encouraged Pynoos to apply for a job running a Boston-area home-care agency tasked with keeping seniors out of institutions. That led to his meeting fellow gerontologist Elyse Salend. Mrs. B. attended their wedding. The couple’s daughters Jessica Pynoos MSW ’09, MSG ’09 and Rebecca Pynoos MSW ’10 also work in the field of aging; son Josh Pynoos MPP ’14 focuses on criminal justice.
The stately brick apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had been home to Mrs. B. for more than 30 years when Pynoos moved in. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met: a refined, articulate, intensely independent woman; a divorcée who’d raised a daughter alone; a retired teacher who checked in on elderly shut-ins for the Red Cross. Above all, she was a social butterfly. Her afternoon teas brought together an eclectic cross-section of Boston society, young and old.
As their friendship deepened, Pynoos saw their apartment building through her eyes: how three flights of stairs took their toll; how removal of the dumbwaiter made grocery shopping harder. At age 94, Mrs. B. fell in her apartment. She waited 14 hours for help to arrive, her telephone inches out of reach. Deemed too frail to return there, she was consigned to a nursing home.
“Hard as it is to believe, I am no longer mistress of all that I survey,” she wrote Pynoos from the facility.
When Pynoos visited, he didn’t like what he saw. He intensified his advocacy for “universal design,” a movement to create environments accessible to everyone, including the elderly and people with disabilities.
Today, he directs the USC Davis-based National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, and he co-directs the USC-affiliated Fall Prevention Center of Excellence. An online executive certificate program he co-founded in 2004 has trained more than 1,000 building contractors, social workers, occupational therapists and other professionals to create safe living environments for seniors.
Jon Pynoos is now the same age Mrs. B. was when they first met. Over their decades-long friendship, he recorded 40 hours of interviews with her, planning to publish them as an oral history. That project is finally coming into focus.
Old friends don’t forget.
By Diane Krieger