During the summer, Jenny Weber ’07 and I worked with Professor Karla Erickson on a project initially called "Laboring at the End of Life." At first, we had proposed a joint paper on formal and informal caregivers to those who are dying. In the midst of our separate literature reviews and research, however, the three of us parted ways somewhat.
My paper, called "A Living Will: Building the Personalized Dying Experience," was about dying in a postmodern moment. I concluded that it is up to the dying individual to create a satisfying dying experience in light of all the factors that have built one's life. I also argued that caretakers of the dying should be sensitive to the dying individual's agency in this matter. In the shift from the modern to the postmodern moment, the dying experience was greatly changed.
Jenny’s paper was called “Near Death Experience: Relationships, Community, and the Self in Later Life,” which focused on the effects of American culture on the aging process. Individuals experiencing decline in later life often find themselves in institutions, and the social implications of such transitions sometimes trump the physical changes that come with aging.
The value placed on individualism, independence, and control in American society can make the process of aging and decline very uncomfortable and alienating, but the ability to form unique and unexpected bonds with caretakers and family members at the end of life remains.
Over the summer, we did many things to increase our body of knowledge about death and dying. We conducted a phone interview with Sandy Aguirre, the director of a hospice in Texas; we took a tour of the Mayflower retirement homes here in Grinnell and spoke with employees and residents; and of course, we did a great deal of reading and film-watching.
I enjoyed the research process, and it was satisfying to follow my own interests to narrow my lens. We had a great deal of autonomy in this project, but Professor Erickson was very helpful in offering guidance when we felt overwhelmed by such a large body of work to explore. In April, the three of us presented our separate papers at the Midwest Sociological Society meetings in Chicago.