College for Human Development professor Jonathan Sandberg is engaged in a long-term research project involving 600 retired couples. The study is designed to help researchers understand the retirement process.
One hundred years ago, being bored in later life was a luxury of which most people only dreamed. "Things like retirement and Social Security were created in the thirties, forties, and fifties," says College for Human Development professor Jonathan Sandberg. "So our great-grandparents didn't have to worry about what they were going to do later in their lives. They were going to work until they died."|
Today, Sandberg says, there is a growing need to understand the retirement process, as aging Baby Boomers become the largest percentage of our retired population. Project Couple Retire, a study Sandberg joined in 1995 as a graduate student at Brigham Young University, follows the lives of 600 U.S. couples between the ages of 55 and 70. Every two years, the couples fill out questionnaires detailing such things as health, marital intimacy, relationships with children, and other aspects of retirement. Project researchers follow up with phone interviews about specific areas.
"It's important to realize that the idea of older adults withdrawing from societybeing lonely, angry, and bitteris a stereotype and not true for many mature adults," says Sandberg, who is in his first year with the Marriage and Family Therapy Program of the Department of Child and Family Studies. "Today's older adult has more opportunities to be engaged in society than in the past. One person I interviewed was a chapter president of the Billy Ray Cyrus fan club and had been to his house in Nashville several times. Her husband was chair of a nationwide junior golf tournament."
The study does, however, address some problems encountered in retirement. Sandberg spoke with couples in which at least one member was depressed, and compared their responses to those of couples not dealing with depression. "We're trying to see the differences in communication patterns, the way they solve problems, and differences in the way they relate to each other," he says. "Most theories about depression have to do with biology or psychology. We believe there is a relational componenthow people relate to each other influences the course of a depressive episode."
Sandberg's long-term goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness of family therapies in treating later-life illnesses. "Right now, older adults are given medication, and may see a psychologist," he says. "I'd like us to recognize that changes in relationships-having to withdraw from relationships at work, health limitations, death of friends and familyhave a major impact."
A perk of Project Couple Retire, Sandberg says, is conducting interviews with remarkable people. One couple maintained positive attitudes, even though both had suffered debilitating strokesthe wife on her left side and the husband on his right side. "They said that together, they make up a whole person," Sandberg recalls. "There are a lot of impressive stories and people like that. It's always a treat to hear the wisdom of these people and learn about their past accomplishments and what they still accomplish."
Sandberg traces his interest in aging to his childhood, when he watched his grandmother suffer and eventually die from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. "I witnessed firsthand the problems that occur in later life, the stress these issues place on families, and the joys that come from caregiving," he says.
As an undergraduate taking introductory courses in psychology, sociology, and family studies, Sandberg discovered a link to family therapy, which focuses on working with relationships and healing them. For Sandberg, who grew up in a Colorado family with seven children, the ideas rang true. "As part of a big family, I learned a lot about the way a family interacts in terms of physical and emotional health, growth, and healing," he says. "I've always been interested in trying to make sense out of my experiences."
Sandberg says what happened to his grandmother left him fearful of disease in later life, so he began to study the aging process to overcome that fear. His teaching style reflects that experience. "We really challenge family therapy students to look at themselves and their issues," he says. "The more in touch they are with themselves, the better therapists they'll be."
MELISSA SPERL AND GARY PALLASSINO