It’s Interpersonal: Family Relationships, Genetic Risk, and Caregiving

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My research program considers family relationships across the life course: in early life, with a focus on disease prevention—leveraging genetic risk information and relationships to motivate health-promoting behaviors—and in later life, with a focus on informal caregiving—identifying characteristics of those most vulnerable to, or resilient from, caregiver stress. It is fortuitous, if not tragic, then, that my research and personal worlds collided during my mother’s final 8 months of life. Here, I discuss how this experience has shifted my thinking within both arms of my research program. First, I consider the state of the science in family health history, arguing that the current approach which focuses on an individual’s first- and second-degree relatives does not take us far enough into the relational landscape to activate communal coping with disease risk. Second, I discuss caregiving from a family systems perspective. My family’s experience confirmed the importance of using a systems approach and highlighted a need to identify underlying variability in members’ expectations of caregiving roles. In so doing, I capture the significance of understanding the multiple perspectives that frame a context in which families adapt and cope with risk and disease diagnoses.

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