Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

This article is a sidebar to the "Elder Statesmen" piece

Newly arrived SSA Assistant Professor Jung-Hwa Ha is one of a new generation of scholars who are carving out paths in gerontology research. She says the enthusiasm she sees at gerontological conferences demonstrates that the future of geriatric research and clinical practice is bright.

Ha, a native of Korea, says her introduction to gerontology was somewhat accidental. Following college in Korea, she volunteered at an international conference on gerontology. From then on, she was hooked. "I found it fascinating," she says. "There were so many experiences that were personally related to mine. My parents are in a generation where they must care not only for their children but also for their parents. Thinking about how important it is to promote productive aging struck me as very important work."

Ha's doctoral work focused on widowhood as one of the major stresses in later life, and her papers have discussed the many aspects of losing a spouse. "Widowhood is multifaceted," she says. "The consequences are not just emotional; they're also behavioral, economic, and social."

And while many studies have examined how social support can help people adjust to widowhood, Ha's research has concentrated on the social consequences of widowhood itself. Her work suggests that widows often form or strengthen relationships with friends and loved ones following the death of a spouse. "In the past we tended to think that people become socially isolated after the death of a spouse and some of that is true," she says. "But I found that in some ways people are very resilient and maintain their social supports and keep quite good contact with friends and loved ones."

Ha's next research horizon is studying how a decline in health affects the relationships of the elderly. "Previously, other studies looked at how social support affects health, but I think it is also important to examine how health affects those social supports. If you are limited in mobility, you are obviously limited in your opportunities to engage in social relationships. So I want to use longitudinal data to look at that effect, as well as how your spouse's health affects your relationships."

Ha also sees an uptick in interest in gerontology among her students. "I see some more awareness among young students that it is important to pay attention to older people," she says. "They are discovering that even if you are interested in younger children, it is important to know about older adults as a resource who can help the whole family."