Anthropologist promotes cultural sensitivity for a diverse aging population


During a National Advisory Council on Aging symposium last month, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gerontology Margo-Lea Hurwicz (center left) presented research at the invitation of (from left) Carl V. Hill, Maria Carrillo and Charles P. Mouton. (Photo courtesy of Margo-Lea Hurwicz)

Born to a father who had survived a World War II Russian Labor camp and a mother whose parents were Czechoslovakian U.S. immigrants, Margo-Lea Hurwicz’s fascination with anthropology and cultural differences began in childhood.

“My grandparents had very different worldviews, and so much had to be negotiated,” said the associate professor of anthropology and gerontology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Since then, Hurwicz has traveled the world, conducting fieldwork concerning the intersection of culture and health in China, Central America, Mexico and the U.S.

Hurwicz realized through her research that there are many different cultural views of health. While the flu may be treated with a serious medical visit in some cultures, other cultures may choose to treat the infection with home remedies. And even gender-specific viewpoints, such as beliefs in male toughness, may keep people in need of medical attention from seeking help.

“It is very important to ask patients and clients how they view the symptoms and problems they are dealing with before proposing solutions. I think one-size-fits-all solutions to human problems are dangerous,” Hurwicz said.

Over a career at UMSL that has spanned more than two decades, Hurwicz’s research on understanding older adults’ ideas about illness and their health decisions has received several grants, including the National Institute of Aging’s Shannon Award and FIRST Award.

Taking note of Hurwicz’s contributions to the field, the National Advisory Council on Aging’s Taskforce on Minority Aging Research invited her to give a presentation at their 127th meeting held at the National Institutes of Health’s Maryland campus on Sept. 27.

Her presentation covered topics such as an ethnographic decision model of treatment choice that she had developed, a discussion of the explanatory models of several illnesses that are common in late life, including Alzheimer’s disease, and suggestions on how to improve public health education for specific groups. Throughout the discussion, Hurwicz emphasized the importance of tailoring elder care to match the cultural sensibilities of different ethnic groups.

“Culturally appropriate services will be required to accommodate the needs of all members of our increasingly multicultural society,” Hurwicz said. “We need to develop the political will to adequately fund the programs that will be needed to support our increasingly older population as well. We can’t rely solely on families – usually wives and daughters – to provide all the care that will be necessary.”

When it comes to receiving awards and invitations to big events for work that began as a childhood curiosity, Hurwicz can only express gratitude.

“It’s always gratifying to have one’s research recognized as important,” she said.

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