80 posts categorized "Immigration, Population, Aging, and Demography"

July 29, 2019

Social Isolation, Living Alone, and Aging

author  photoBy Karen Sternheimer

If you live alone, you do not necessarily experience social isolation. That’s a good thing, because social isolation can have adverse health effects, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Maybe you don’t live alone and would like to carve out more time to spend by yourself. If you live with family members or roommates, having time alone might be a rare treat. Even if you do live alone, you do not necessarily experience social isolation if you regularly spend time with friends, family, or others. Social engagement could be informal social time or involve participation in organized activities through community groups, religious groups, and so on. Work is another way in which we might be engaged with others regularly.

Social isolation impacts older people more, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. The older we get, the more of our waking hours are likely to be spent alone. People under 40 spend on average 3.5 hours a day alone, compared with 4.75 hours for those in their 40s and 50s. Adults over 60 spend an average of 7 hours alone.

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July 08, 2019

The Intersection between Biography, History, and Health

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

We often think about our health as profoundly personal, rooted in individual choices regarding what we eat, how much we exercise, and how well we comply with medical advice. Federal laws protect the privacy of our health information, and many people opt not to share information about their health with anyone but family and close friends (and sometimes not even with them), reinforcing the notion of health as personal.

And yet much of our health status is beyond our personal control, as I wrote about last year. Whether it is access to healthy food options, the time and space to exercise, or the availability of regular medical care, many aspects of our health are tied to public policy decisions and historical changes.

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December 10, 2018

The Definition of the Situation: Resisting Discussions of Death

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A family member’s recent illness and passing highlighted a concept within micro sociology: the definition of the situation. This idea posits that situations come with social scripts that shape our behavior within any given context. How we define a situation guides our actions; sometimes our actions might seem strange if others around us define the situation differently. Put simply, people base their behavior on our understanding of events, and we generally ascribe meaning to these events based on our interactions with others.

Although he was 85-years-old and was being treated for lymphoma, a type of cancer, my father-in-law was healthy enough to play tennis this past August when he fell and broke his hip on the court. Our family defined this situation as a sports-related injury, albeit one with more risks due to his age and overall health status. It seemed that medical professionals defined his injury the same way too.

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November 26, 2018

Identity and Retirement

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociologist Michelle Pannor Silver’s new book, Retirement and its Discontents: Why We Won’t Stop Working, Even if We Can, is based on interviews with retirees, many of whom are struggling with the transition to retirement. Many of her informants who held prestigious positions as doctors, CEOs, and professors said the biggest challenge they faced was related to their sense of self.

If a big part of one’s identity comes from work, who are you if you are retired?

This challenge is complicated when work occupies most of one’s time, often to the detriment of family and maintaining social ties outside of one’s field. For occupations that demand long hours while offering titles with a great deal of prestige, leaving the field can leave people unsure of what to do and of who they are.

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September 14, 2018

A Sociology of My Death

Unknown-2By Peter Kaufman

I’m dying. I don’t mean this figuratively—like I’m dying of thirst or dying to visit Hawaii. I mean it quite literally. I have incurable, stage IV lung cancer.

I was diagnosed in June 2017, a few months after my fiftieth birthday. My only symptom was a nagging, dry cough, but by the time the disease was detected the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. Since then I have had numerous treatments and interventions. Some of these worked quite well, allowing me to resume most of my normal activities; others were not as effective, resulting in adverse side effects, extreme discomfort, and, in one instance, a week-long stay in the hospital. My current treatment plan showed great initial promise but now, after just a few weeks, the tumors started growing again.      

For me to have lung cancer—indeed any form of cancer—is the epitome of a tragic irony. I have never smoked or tried illegal drugs, and I’ve never even been drunk. I’ve pursued clean living, good nutrition, and regular exercise in part to avoid the sort of medical misfortune that I am now experiencing. As a kid I played sports all day long. At sixteen I swore off junk food. At eighteen I became a vegetarian. In my twenties I ran marathons and did triathlons, and, in my thirties and forties when my aching knees no longer let me run, I swam or biked most days. About six months before my diagnosis I completed a one-day workout that simulated two-thirds of an Ironman triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 120 miles (with 5,000 feet of climbing). A few weeks later I recorded my fastest one-mile swim time ever. I was incredibly healthy . . . until I wasn’t.

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September 10, 2018

Being a Temporary Foreigner

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As C. Wright Mills noted in The Sociological Imagination, one of our tasks as sociologists is to “make the familiar strange.” Traveling to a foreign country—especially one where you barely speak the language—is a great way to undertake Mills’s advice.

Travel highlights how many little things we take for granted while interacting with others. The most obvious barrier is speaking the same language. While we English speakers of the world are uniquely privileged because so many people speak our language, or at least some of our language, not everyone does.

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July 30, 2018

Aging and Identity

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

One of my elderly neighbors, who I will call John, has a degenerative neurological disorder. It has dramatically affected his speech and his ability to walk. His wife confided in me that he really doesn’t like to see people who knew him “before”—and as residents in their home for 45 years, that means many people in our community haven’t been able to see much of John.

Not only has John been struggling with the effects of this disease, but he has been struggling with his sense of self. It is clear from his wife’s observations that he does not want his current condition to change the way people think of him. John’s wife regularly recounts that he was an avid hiker and loved to ride his bike and go camping before this illness, helping to shape others’ perceptions of John. This, unfortunately, has contributed to his sense of isolation.

As George Herbert Mead teaches us, the way we view our identity and ourselves is rooted in the social context. This means that our sense of self is something we negotiate with how we think others perceive us. It doesn’t mean we simply adopt the sense of identity that others may project onto us. Instead, we might take these perceptions into account, even if that means constructing an identity in opposition to how we think others might see us.

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July 02, 2018

Micro Meets Macro: Gender Selection and Population Problems

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When we think about our family decisions, such as whether to have children, this may seem to be based solely on individual preferences. After all, child rearing and family planning are very personal.

But our decisions take place within both structural and cultural conditions that are not just individual. For instance, if you live in an agrarian-based society, where many hands are needed in fields and farms, you might have more children than in a highly industrialized society that rewards high levels of education.

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May 10, 2018

Social Change and Your Next Step

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Graduation is always an exciting time for students and their families. It can also be a stressful time, as graduates sometimes struggle to figure out what's next. Commencement speeches provide soaring rhetoric about “following your dreams” and how you are the leaders of the future.

As a young graduate, I found these kinds of speeches to be pretty pointless (and sometimes boring). For someone trying to figure out “what they want to be when they grow up,” these motivational speeches—and often graduation gifts in the form of motivational books for the graduate—offer little useful advice.

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April 12, 2018

The Return of Multigenerational Households

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It may seem like the natural order of things for parents and children to live in the same home until the children are off to college or can afford their own apartment. But the so-called “nuclear” family living separately from other family members is mostly a mid-twentieth century development, and one that is declining.

As a Pew Research Center report recently detailed, multigenerational households are becoming more common. In 2016, more than 60 million people, or nearly one in five Americans lived in a household with two or more generations of adults.

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