Karla Erickson, sociology, began work on her newest book — How We Die Now: Intimacy and the Work of Dying — after she observed the spiritual, physical, and emotional support hospice workers provided her dying grandparents.

Erickson, a feminist ethnographer of labor, immerses herself in the occupational and social worlds she studies. To develop a deep understanding of the working lives and occupational wisdom of end-of-life workers, she trained as a nurse’s aide.

She and 12 of her students partnered with a retirement community, using participant observation and interviews with administrators, nurses, chaplains, volunteers, residents, and family caregivers to understand the dynamics of aging and preparing for death in an elder community. Grinnell is a destination for retirees and has several excellent elder communities. Grinnell’s trusting, small-town culture welcomed Erickson and her students; participants gave them intimate access to the final chapter of life.

How We Die Now book cover

“In the 21st century, many of us are living longer, dying more slowly, and more important, dying differently than our ancestors,” she says in an article in the fall 2013 issue of The Grinnell Magazine. In it Erickson offers eight lessons she’s learned to help those “navigating the transition from life to death.”

She joined Charity Nebbe in an interview on Iowa Public Radio to discuss the book and current elder and hospice care.

Her earlier book, The Hungry Cowboy: Service and Community in a Neighborhood Restaurant, is a behind-the-scenes look at class, community, and gendered labor in a Tex-Mex restaurant.

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