Jeong Eun “Jel” Lee shares relationship research through extension programs to promote healthy aging for individuals, families, and communities. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Lee builds resiliency among aging Iowans through relationship research, outreach

Jeong Eun “Jel” Lee is leveraging the power of relationships to help individuals age well.

Lee’s focus on family health came about through her interactions with caregivers who were coping with their family responsibilities. While working on caregiver research projects, Lee, a new assistant professor in human development and family studies and state specialist in Human Sciences Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, realized that most caregiving studies take a caregiver’s, versus a care receiver’s, perspective.

“It’s natural, given that sometimes care receivers aren’t always cognizant of the full caregiving situation,” Lee said. “However, the importance of examining social support and caregiving issues from a dyadic perspective has grown.”

Bringing dyadic context to caregiving

Lee, whose doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University focused on the interdependent lives of middle-aged couples in the context of caregiving, said her research has helped her see how the power of aging couple’s relationships often serves as a fundamental basis for human resilience. She said her expertise in couple functioning and coping strategies also allows her to view relationships from multiple perspectives.

“The dyadic coping process, while it’s been studied, has not been practically implemented within caregiving settings,” she said. “Dyadic coping in the caregiving context often involves mutual goal setting, addressing both partners’ appraisals of the stress with empathy and perspective-taking. The goal is to make the caregiving process more collaborative for both parties.”

As Lee reviews programs for aging Iowans and their families, she said her clinical background gives her important insights into the design, implementation, fidelity and evaluation of programs.

“In designing proper caregiving and family interventions, there’s a gap,” Lee said. “It’s important to build a bridge between the two worlds of research and practical programming, addressing the needs of both caregivers and care recipients.”

Another area of research that Lee has been interested in is building social resilience of older adults. Some individuals are not born with an inclination toward social resilience, Lee said. However, she said their resiliency can be enhanced through proper interventions that change their behavior.

“People may have a predisposition for particular behaviors, but behavior changes can also help you move toward your goal,” she said.

Establishing interventions

In making the decision to come to Iowa State, Lee said the opportunities to work with well-respected researchers in the university’s interdepartmental gerontology program and to work with Iowa State University extension and outreach were ones she couldn't resist.

Iowa State’s integration of gerontology research and effective outreach programs help ensure that Lee can translate her research findings into programs that benefit the public at large.

“It’s important to help people get connected to community resources,” Lee said. “As part of our land-grant university’s mission, ISU Extension and Outreach helps people be connected to other people.”

Jennifer Margrett, the director of Iowa State University’s interdepartmental gerontology program, said Lee’s research and outreach will help the university advance its mission to champion healthy aging.

“Dr. Lee brings tremendous expertise to her role, bridging human development and family studies, gerontology, and outreach,” Margrett said. “Her work extends the reach of the university’s research and outreach missions across Iowa and promises to promote healthy aging for individuals, families, and communities.”

As Lee branches out into new communities, she acknowledges that not all Iowans are benefiting from the programs available to them. She said it’s important for program planners to address people’s concerns in culturally competent ways, as traditionally, a majority of minority adults do not utilize community programs.

One way in which Lee plans to draw more Iowans in so they can benefit from community-based programming is by establishing health communication interventions. Through the interventions, extension and outreach can help prepare older adults to speak up to doctors during health care visits.

Lee said next year, she hopes to begin pilot testing future care programs across counties in Iowa. Sessions will cover topics like future care planning and how to remain secure and independent while “aging in place” — defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.”

“The programs help people be better self-advocates,” Lee said. “For some, it’s difficult to do without appearing contradictory, but by asking good questions, they can advocate for themselves in a way that is respectful of health care professionals.”