Professor; Co-Director, Graduate Program in Sociology
Mather Memorial Building 231A
Ph.D. Bowling Green State University, 1976
Director, Cancer Survivors Research Program
Gary Deimling’s research interests focus on the effects of life threatening illness on the mental health of older adults, and he received a major grant from the National Cancer Institute to conduct research in this area. More specifically, his interests include the study of cancer survivors, the coping resources they have developed, their health beliefs and behaviors, and the stress effects they have experienced and continue to experience. He also continues to conduct research and publish in the area of family caregiving for older adults with specific interest in the strain experienced by family member caring for Alzheimer’s patients.
Over the past 25 years, I have had the opportunity to develop two parallel and complimentary areas of research: the stress associated with caring for older adults with mental impairment and the long-term impact of surviving cancer. These two areas of research have in common the orientation that while illness can be a profound stressor, responding to illness can be an opportunity for intense personal growth. More specifically, my research concentrates on the psychosocial impact of illness on individuals and their family members.
Family Strains Associated with Chronic Illness
Another overarching theme in my early research has been the successful adaptation of older adults to the stresses associated with illness. The bulk of my research has focused on the impact of caring for frail older adults, especially those with dementia. With the explosion of interest in Alzheimer’s disease and the stress associated with caring for these individuals, I focused my early work on the study of this disorder. Much of my work in this area has been in developing new multi-dimensional measures of family caregiver strain such as family relationship strain and health related strain. This research employs multivariate procedures such as path modeling to trace the effects of specific stressors like cognitive incapacity and disruptive behavior on family members.
Quality of Life of Older Cancer Survivors
In 1993, my research took a new direction: the study of the quality of life of older adult cancer survivors. This is an extension of earlier work on the stresses associated with illness and aging. There has been little research on older adult long-term cancer survivors. Historically, cancer survivorship among older adults was relatively rare. However, advances in cancer treatment along with more general increases in longevity mean that cancer survivorship among older adults will be a significant aspect of later life for more individuals. I will be examining the patterns of support and the effects of these patterns on long-term survivors’ adjustment to the disease and its continuing sequelae.
The research employs the general stress and coping paradigm that has long been used in research on the effects of illness. The work also combines the perspectives of extreme stress theory and identity theory to examine the effects of cancer on this uniquely vulnerable group of survivors. While only a small proportion of cancer survivors exhibit traumatic stress symptoms, the presence of sub-clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder need to be addressed. This research will be one of the first studies to address these issues.
A major emphasis of our work has been on how the development of the “survivor identity” buffers the individual from some of the more profound effects of cancer. While identity theory has been adapted to the study of illness, our research will be the first explicit test of identity issues and survivorship as related to long-term psychosocial distress. Other key aspects of the research will address the ways that personal dispositions such as coping style and health beliefs, along with proactive behaviors such as health promotion and marshalling social and health care support, can buffer cancer survivors from chronic stressors associated with cancer survivorship.
This research has been present through grants by the National Cancer Institute, which will provide approximately $3 million in research funds from 1998 through 2008.
Sociology of Aging
Contemporary Social Theory
Our faculty also serve as mentors to a large number of independent study and honors project students. The opportunity to help students become independent scholars is tremendously rewarding to me. It allows me to see all of the hard work that goes into teaching come to fruition. We are most proud of those students who have completed honors projects and presented their findings in public forums such as our honors colloquia.
The department has a doctoral program with a focus on social gerontology and medical sociology. As a member of our graduate faculty I have enjoyed establishing a mentoring relationship with a number of students. Former students whom I have worked with closely include: Elaine Borawski-Clark, presently a tenure track faculty member in the CWRU School of Medicine and Mark Latcovich, now Academic Dean at St. Mary’s Seminary. My collaboration with a former student, Virginia Smerglia, now at Akron University, has led to seven co-authored articles.
At the request of colleagues across the university, I have also served on doctoral committees in other departments. These committees provided the opportunity to view the conceptual and methodological intersections between social science research and health care delivery research, and the ethical issues of behavioral research in different contexts. Such interdisciplinary thinking has been most helpful to launch our National Cancer Institute funded research project.
Involvement in graduate education typically extends outside the classroom. I have had the opportunity to serve on the College of Arts and Sciences Graduate committee, and was elected to be the committee chair for the 1997-98 academic year.