Zeitschrift für
Gerontologie
und Geriatrie
Band 32, Heft 2, April 1999

Obituary for Margret M. Baltes

Margret Maria Baltes, née Labouvie, was born on March 8, 1939 in Dillingen (Saar). She studied psychology at the University of Saarbrücken, under the academic mentorship of Ernst Boesch. In 1963 she finished her university studies with the Diplom, and began a job in a child and family counseling center. Soon afterwards, she took a step that would prove decisive for her future. She changed countries and continent to begin the Ph.D. program in experimental psychology at West Virginia University, with, among others, John Nesselroade and Hayne W. Reese. She finished her Ph.D. in 1973, specializing in experimental psychology with a behaviorist dissertation on non-littering behavior of children. She spent the following years at Pennsylvania State University, beginning as an Assistant Professor and then moving up to the Associate Professor level.

In 1980, she came to Berlin, together with her husband Paul Baltes. There, she directed a research group for psychological gerontology, within the Department of Gerontopsychiatry at the Free University of Berlin. Initially small, the group grew rapidly under Margretís leadership. Since 1984, she served as professor for psychological gerontology in the Department of Psychology at the Free University of Berlin. In addition, she was an honorary professor of psychology at the University of Trier. She also spent much time as an honored guest in eminent international research centers, including three productive stays at Stanford University in California during the 1990s.

Margretís life work has permanently enriched the field of gerontology. Her early work, begun in the mid-1970s and inspired by behaviorism and observational methodology, concerned the creation, maintenance, and modification of dependent behavior among older adults. The results highlighted the key role played by the social environment. The dependence-supporting patterns that she identified stand today among the classic findings of psychological gerontology. The impact of this work is visible in at least three ways. First, Margret was among the earliest to provide a concrete demonstration of the fruitfulness of behaviorist paradigms in gerontology for studying interactions between elderly people in nursing homes and in private settings. This in turn gave todayís gerontology the important perspective that aging is less a process of inevitable decline than one that is partly directed by social, environmental, and societal conditions. Aging is therefore viewed as partly constructed and constructable. Second, she influenced the discussion about methods in gerontological research by introducing her exacting observational method, ideal for use in naturalistic settings. Third, with this work she was able to connect results from basic research to intervention research with an unusual and noteworthy rigor. The high plasticity of behavior in old age, already apparent in her work at this time, paid off in concrete training programs for improving the competence of nursing care professionals, and thus increased support for independence in old age.

In the mid-1980s, drawing on her intensive use of behavioral observation, Margret became interested in studying everyday competence in old age. She developed a measurement procedure for assessing everyday behavior, in order to describe and analyze the everyday competence of older adults through behavior in everyday situations. The result of this work, conducted predominantly in conjunction with the Berlin Aging Study, was an interdisciplinary model of everyday competence. The model reflects a distinction between basic capacities and interest-directed, more optional "expanded" everyday competence, and identifies predictors of individual differences in everyday competence. Through this work, Margret had a formative influence on the Berlin Aging Study. She also contributed substantially, both conceptually and empirically, to the increasingly intense discussion of the concept of everyday competence in gerontology in recent years.

A further major research interest for Margret involved the question of cognitive plasticity in aging, with special attention to processes in dementia. Here, she pursued the idea that reduced cognitive plasticity might be a sign of very early-stage dementia. With the help of the testing-the-limits approach, she made contributions to the early diagnosis of dementia, and showed the importance of psychological methods for dementia research.

The theoretical model of selective optimization and compensation was developed by Margret and Paul Baltes at the end of the 1980s, to better conceptualize the relatively broadly used concept of "successful aging, and thus provide a framework for empirical research. In light of limited resources, choosing goals (selection), developing abilities needed for reaching these goals (optimization), and replacing or substituting for lost competencies (compensation) are all developmental processes that attain increasing importance with increasing age. The intensive reception enjoyed by this meta-model in the international gerontological research community demonstrates its convincing and broadly applicable structure. Margret continued her efforts to further develop the basic conceptual grounds of the model, through connections to theories of social relationships, and also to examine the model empirically, within a well-designed project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In this context and in collaboration with Laura Carstensen, she created the term "collective selective optimization with compensation."

Margret was also a contributor to the societal discussion concerning aging. In her engaged and well-thought-out positions, Margret also pleaded for the "productivity of a new aging," and additionally, pointed out the deficits of a social-political discussion exclusively conducted from a masculine perspective.

Margret was unusually productive, and in cooperation with many colleagues she developed and completed many funded projects. She published seven books and more than 100 chapters and journal articles, which appeared for the most part in the best international peer-reviewed gerontology journals. In addition, for everyone who worked with Margret, the professional and thorough approach she took in working on manuscripts was impressive. Multiple versions and major revision of a paper even at a late stage, demonstrated her high commitment to the quality of her work. It is thus no wonder that Margret was one of the few German gerontology researchers whose work not only received intensive international reception, but who was also herself quite influential internationally.

For the productive researcher, teaching is often enough an academic chore to be fulfilled. Not so for Margret ­ her courses were prepared with great care; and masters and Ph.D. students exceptionally well advised. Margret Baltes was among the most popular of teachers, as demonstrated by the students who attended her courses even without the pressure of curricular requirements. The German Research Foundation (DFG) funded graduate program of excellence in "Psychological and Medical Gerontology: Psychological Potential and Limits in Old Age, which Margret Baltes helped to initiate, develop, and implement in 1998, would have been another forum for the support of young researchers, one she would certainly have used with enthusiasm. In 1994, Margret received the Gerontological Society of Americaís Distinguished Mentorship Award. Though only one of her many awards, it is one that speaks for itself.

Margret was an active member of countless committees and organizations. She had a formative influence on the activities of these organizations, both through her actions and through her convincing arguments. From 1986 to 1988 she directed the section for social and behavioral gerontology of the German Society for Gerontology and Geriatrics. She belonged to the editorial board of many journals; she represented gerontology in the advisory boards of foundations, and was a member in high-ranking commissions; most recently in the Expert Commission on Aging preparing the latest government report on aging, and as chairperson of the European Unionís advisory group for the development of aging-related research priorities within the recently established EU Fifth Framework for Research Support.

Margret died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure on January 28, 1999, shortly before her 60th birthday. German gerontology has lost one of its most important representatives. We mourn an honored teacher, colleague, and friend.

Elisabeth Steinhagen-Thiessen
Clemens Tesch-Römer
Hans-Werner Wahl

Translation by Monisha Pasupathi


 
 
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