Her goal as a researcher is to promote healthy aging and reduce health inequalities. She is doing it creatively: writing a book for children! Her story wants to offer a positive image on old people and make children curious about getting to know them. It also includes an additional material for parents, grandparents or educators who will read the story to the children and help them answer the questions they may ask about old age.
Catrinel, you are a psychologist, but you also do interdisciplinary research with sociologists and health scientists. How come?
The main reason for my interdisciplinary interests and collaborations would be my research field itself. Health psychology is a discipline without clear “borders” so to say. Inside the discipline we have debates about what is health psychology and what is not. These debates are boosted by the fact that lay people do not usually know what health psychology means. Medical or clinical psychology or even medical sociology are much better known. The focus of health psychology is moving between public health, psychotherapy, medical sociology, organizational psychology etc. Both for my research and my practice activities (i.e. counseling) I make use of social psychology theories, developmental psychology knowledge, medical information and of a “toolbox” of therapeutic techniques and counseling skills.
During my “Gender and Health” guest professorship at Freie Universität in particular I had the opportunity to exchange knowledge and get new perspectives on my research interests from sociologists, gender scholars and political scientists. I really enjoyed this exchange! It was like having my research reflected in many mirrors and I suddenly noticed things that did not catch my attention before. Also, I realized once again why I am actually interested mainly in the psychological dimensions of a certain problem.
I believe my interdisciplinary work collaborations really reflect the developments in our social world and particularly in our dynamic work context as researchers. For example, since virtual reality has become part of our daily reality, it is more important to have IT specialists in your research teams. These help us with designing online questionnaires for gathering data, designing software for data analysis and come up with innovative solutions for disseminating research findings. For health psychology in particular, the current trend is to develop online interventions or smart phone interventions and for this one needs to have IT specialists on board.
As a psychologist, do you benefit from the exchange with other disciplines?
Nowadays there is a trend towards interdisciplinary research projects and intersectoral collaboration. For health psychology specifically, both theoretical and practical research projects gain for instance from the expertise of sociologists or public health experts. I was fortunate enough to work in research projects that had a practical aim. For example, in Romania I worked in a public health project that aimed to evaluate how health promotion is done in kindergartens and schools and promote innovative solutions for better health promotion in children. For this I needed the expertise of educators and teachers as well as public health experts.
For my postdoc project on resources for positive aging, I needed to learn more about the sociological theories of aging in order to understand it from several perspectives. I could have focused only on cognitive and behavioural changes or on emotions in old age, but I wanted to understand how aging is constructed in a certain social context. I wanted to see the bigger picture. I participated in several Alexander von Humboldt conferences where we had the opportunity to exchange ideas with researchers from fields that are very different from ours in terms of scope, method or applicability. Personally, I learned a lot from explaining my research to engineers, medical doctors and lawyers.
Your profession as a psychologist would also allow you to do therapeutical work. Why did you decide against this option?
Almost every psychology student dreams of being a psychotherapist someday and having one’s own practice where people come to be helped. I belonged to another category. I wanted to try out as many work directions as my psychology studies could offer and see what fits me best. Psychotherapy was one of them.
During my internship at the psychiatric clinic I realized I would like to make more public health changes then focus on individual cases.
Also, I had the opportunity to work in health education projects in schools and really enjoyed it. That is how I discovered I wanted to work more in the domain of prevention then in the clinical field. Other job opportunities for working in research projects in the field of health psychology followed and I was hooked to this path. But I did also a clinical and psychotherapy MA program and work sometimes in individual counseling for behavior change. For example, with people who want to eat healthier or take up physical exercise. There I apply motivational interviewing techniques and all behavior change skills I have learned.
You studied in different countries and also did research there. To what point matters good intercultural communication in the academic world?
Well at a basic level it comes down to language. I would say a good intercultural communication requires to learn the language of the place you are studying or working. Much can be done in English, but to really understand the way your work colleagues think and react to situations it is better to learn the language. I learned Portuguese during my MA Erasmus semester in Portugal at Universidade do Mihno and I learned German during my study and research years at Freie Universität Berlin. I have worked with a set of theories that were not necessarily developed in my country of origin and invested time in trying to translate them into my own language and culture so that important meanings do not “get lost in translation”.
Besides language mastery, good intercultural communication is about having an open mind. For example, each party involved in an international research project has to believe they can learn from others and have the willingness to share ideas and experiences.
National stereotypes, feelings of superiority, big Egos can really hamper intercultural collaboration. Just as well as intarcultural collaboration.
Internet has made communication easier; we can have Skype conferences with people from Australia, China or Africa. But I guess researchers have to open up their mental borders in order to get ahead. And mental borders refer not so much to language barriers, but more to different schools of thought that inspire the methodological approaches. For instance, some like a more “scientific”, positivistic approach to psychology and will work only with quantitative methods, while others prefer a more constructivist approach and work with qualitative methods. The trouble begins when one tries to bring researchers with different thought paradigms to work together.
In a global world, such collaborations between “cultures” of thought pose more challenges then intercultural collaborations themselves.
Your most recent work is dedicated to the topic “precariat”. One of your latest articles for example is titled „Aging in precarious times: Exploring the role of gender in shaping views on aging“. What is your definition of precariat? And how does it relate to the perception of age?
This is a good example of how I used a concept developed in sociology and applied it to a health psychology research. Precariousness in English is different from the sense of “precariat” in German. It has of course similarities. Precariousness was defined by Anne Allison in her book on Precarious Japan as a state of uncertainty and insecurity in terms of work but also of everyday life. Precarious jobs are a reflection of the capitalistic tendencies of irregular, temporary work. The fascinating thing is that one may find in the category of precarious workers people with academic degrees, sadly even with finished PhDs as well as persons without any academic qualifications. There is a high percentage of women working in precarious jobs due to work-family balance issues. And of course there is a high percentage of immigrants working in precarious jobs. This diversity makes the subject difficult to study with quantitative methods, but qualitative methods are a good way of reaching these vulnerable groups.
Precariousness is connected to the way people imagine aging. If people have financial means and a secure work environment they can at least theoretically plan their old age. Findings from my study showed that individuals with secure finances and secure jobs worried less about their old age. Their problems related to old age were finding meaning after retirement and keeping fit. By contrast, people with precarious work conditions were more negative about their old age perspectives. They did not make plans and were focused on surviving in the moment, hoping that they will be able to do the same also in old age. Although keeping fit is even more important for this category, they had little time to invest in thinking about a healthy lifestyle and adopting one. Stress was much more part of their daily lives and could have a negative impact on their old age.
Nowadays precarious work conditions make it almost impossible to plan old age and prepare for it in the classical sense.
Gender also plays an important role since as I said many women are working in precarious jobs. I was interested in how women and men imagine aging when they face the uncertainties of precariousness. Negative images of aging were present in both women and men. Nevertheless, women worried more about losing their attractiveness in old age, while men worried about losing their status in society. Differences in views of aging were related more to pension security than to gender. Persons with precarious work conditions had more negative images of aging than the ones with secure financial situations. However, women with precarious work conditions displayed the most negative images of aging.
Why did you start focusing on this topic?
First, I became interested in aging since it is a topic that affects all of us. Aging is part of our lives, either as our own aging or as aging family members and aging friends, or in the form of demographic changes. Nowadays we have a larger percent of older individuals not just in developed countries, but also developing countries around the world. In the western world, the baby boomer generation born after the Second World War, is either described as “a grey tsunami” or lately as the result of active aging policies, it is described in terms of resources.
If I think about my research about precariousness and aging, it started from the critical point of view that positive aging is not for all.
I studied representations of aging both in Germany and Romania, and noticed that there are many differences in terms of what older people can hope for. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, but there are different ways of representing what is important for a good old age. Reflecting on this topic, I came across the work of Elena Portacolone of precarious older adults in the USA. This inspired me to think about the sociological concept of precariousness and how it could be applied to psychology. Aging seemed like the perfect context to do this.
In a youth obsessed society, one of the biggest fears is to grow old. In the prevention field a lot is being done to encourage people to invest in their health and have a long life. Aging does not begin with 50 or 60 or 65, it is a lifelong process after all. Although there is a constant preoccupation with aging, we still know more about developmental processes in children and adolescents, then we know about middle and old age. When one considers for instance the biological theories of aging, still so little is known from the biological point of view.
For health psychology in particular, aging research is extremely relevant in the clinical field. A higher percentage of patients will be older individuals. Those who suffer from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or different forms of cancer are to a larger extent older persons. Thus, doing psychotherapy with them requires knowledge of aging processes.
Do the results of your work have practical implications? Slightly exaggerated: Do you have ambitions to change the world?
Several projects that I worked on have direct practical implications. Some of them actually were more practice oriented than fundamental research. For example, together with Anca Stan who is also a psychologist, we organized communication workshops for nurses and stress management interventions for medical personnel from the Oncology clinics. Together with my students in Romania, we designed a therapeutic story for children from the Oncology clinic to help them cope with their fear of medical procedures.
The results of my precarious aging project has practical implications for policy such as adapting active aging policies for the precarious work environments. For the psychology practice, findings may help design interventions at individual level to help individuals in precarious conditions to develop goals and prevent depression and anxieties in this vulnerable group.
Currently, I am working on a project of designing a pedagogical story to promote positive views of aging in children. This is connected to my research since study participants spoke about the importance of the next generation and inter-generational communication. Classical stories were shown to include many negative aging stereotypes, especially regarding older women. Henneberg says they are represented as demented hags, self-sacrificing or ineffectual grannies!
There are research findings that six-year-old children have negative representations of aging.
From all possible stereotypes those about aging are the ones that can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
It is known that people with positive images of aging have better health and live longer than those with negative images of aging.
There is a whole literature for children out there addressing aging. But most concentrates on explaining negative things that happen in old age such as dementia. This is in itself very good, but offers children the idea that aging is associated with disease. There are also stories that offer positive images of old age, but these refer mostly to grandparents. My story wants to offer a positive image on old people in general and make children curious about getting to know them. It includes an additional material for parents, grandparents or educators who will read the story to the children and help them answer the questions they may ask about old age.