Chris Divin, a doctoral student in the School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin, and a 2014 recipient of the Frances Fowler Wallace Award from the Hogg Foundation, has recently completed her dissertation, “Exploring the Lived Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and Salutogenesis in Aging Mexican-American Women.” Her study attempts to bring to light the experience of intimate partner violence among elderly Mexican American women.

Frances Fowler Wallace, the award’s namesake, was married to John Forsythe Wallace, who served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives and the State Board of Control. She died July 18, 1972, in Austin at the age of 80. The Wallace Award provides partial support for doctoral students’ dissertation research on “the cause, treatment, cure, and prevention of mental disease, mental illness, and mental disorders,” as directed in her will.  The award provides up to $1,500 for research-related expenses.

We talked to Chris Divin about her research.

Tell us about yourself. At what point did you decide to pursue a career in mental health research, and what influenced that decision? 

I have been a nurse for almost 40 years! My nursing career has provided me with profound experiences in several interesting places in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It was while working in a marginalized community in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in the mid 1980s with a group of health promoters that I became aware of intimate partner violence (IPV) as a serious public health issue.  In the barrio where my family and I lived and worked men, women, and children came together on the “Día Internacional de la Mujer” International Day of Women to paint murals throughout the barrio to raise awareness about violence against women.  In 2003, I began working with frail elderly in El Paso as a nurse practitioner and it was during that time that I realized that for some women there was no aging out of violence.  I also realized that others were still trying to heal and integrate their lived experience.  At that time, I was not aware of the dearth of studies on IPV and aging, and sensed that it was a phenomenon that merited further exploration.

Your dissertation is titled, “Exploring the Lived Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and Salutogenesis in Aging Mexican-American Women.” What questions are you trying to answer with this work? 

Salutogenesis, a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a medical sociologist, focuses on what resources sustain health in the midst of adversity as opposed to pathogenesis that searches for the causes of disease. Before beginning my PhD program, I had not heard the term however have found it to be an interesting lens for exploring issues of health in adversity. Much of the research on intimate partner violence has focused on the serious and often long-term adverse effects of IPV yet researchers have called for increased understanding of the strengths that women garner to not only survive intimate partner violence but to heal and move beyond their experience.  Therefore, my dissertation asked the following three questions:

• What is the lived experience of IPV in aging Mexican-American women?
• How do social and cultural factors shape the IPV experience for aging Mexican-American women?
• How do aging Mexican-American women with a history of IPV, sustain health and well-being throughout and beyond the IPV experience?

I searched for the “experts” or aging Mexican-American women with a history of IPV to seek answers to my questions.

What led to your taking a professional interest in this particular topic?

It was not until the 1990s that researchers began to explore aging and intimate partner violence. Before that time it was very much a hidden phenomenon. Although physical violence does seem to decrease with age, psychological abuse continues and some women have suggested that it is even more painful. There have been a handful of studies in the US exploring IPV and aging; however, these studies have been with Caucasian and African-American women. Although some studies on IPV and Hispanics have included a few aging women, research conducted specifically to capture the wisdom of aging Mexican-American women who have experienced intimate partner violence is non-existent.  I hope that the wisdom shared by the 12 aging Mexican-American women interviewed for this study will shed light not only for health care professionals caring for an increasingly growing aging and Hispanic population but will also benefit other women still living with IPV. When a problem is a serious public health issue such as IPV, affecting one in three women in the U.S. an interdisciplinary approach throughout the life span is needed.  One of the major themes in this study was a “desire to break the cycle of abuse” for future generations.

How do you think your research methods and approach will help you to answer the questions that you’re posing?

My dissertation was guided by Denzin’s Interpretive Interactionism. His methodology brings light to personal problems such as IPV that also have serious public health implications. Rich data, obtained through conducting two separate hour-long interviews, answered my three research questions. It was important to meet with each of the women more than once to establish trust and rapport and provide an opportunity for reflection and further insight. For some of the women, this was the first time that they had told their story. The sensitizing framework that guided my work was Antonovsky’s Salutogenic Theory; exploring what resources help foster a person’s ability to comprehend, manage and find meaningfulness in their lived experiences and remain healthy in spite of adversity.  These two frameworks complemented one another as both value the lived experience and historical and sociocultural factors that shape a person’s story.

Are there any suggested readings you can recommend for those who might be interested in learning more about this topic? 

I would recommend one of the most recent literature reviews on aging and IPV:

Finfgeld-Connett, D. (2013). Intimate partner abuse among older women: Qualitative systematic review. Clinical nursing research, xx(x), 1-20. doi : 10.1177/1054773813500301

In April of this year,  UT’s  Institute for Domestic Violence and  Sexual Assault invited Dr. Devaney, a sociologist from Ireland to present his work on IPV and older women in the UK. I was fortunate to attend one of his lectures at Safe Place, the local shelter in Austin for those affected by violence.  He and his colleagues have used the Salutogenic Framework in their studies on aging and IPV as well:

Lazenbatt, A., & Devaney, J. (2014). Older women living with domestic violence: coping resources and mental health and well-being. Current Nursing Journal1(1), 10-22.In 2011 I began a secondary data analysis utilizing data that Dr. Tracie Harrison had collected for a larger ethnographic study on health disparities and disablement in Mexican-American and non-Hispanic white women aged 55-75:

Divin, C.,Volker, D.,  & Harrison, T. (2013) Intimate partner violence in Mexican-American women aging with mobility impairments: A secondary data analysis of cross-language research. Advances in Nursing Science 36(3), 243-257.

Two other recent studies conducted in Texas with Mexican-American women provided further insight for my study:

Montalvo‐Liendo, N., Wardell, D. W., Engebretson, J., & Reininger, B. M. (2009). Factors influencing disclosure of abuse by women of Mexican descent. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 41(4), 359-367.

Brabeck, K. M., & Guzmán, M. R. (2008). Frequency and perceived effectiveness of strategies to survive abuse employed by battered Mexican-origin women. Violence Against Women, 14, 1274−1294. doi:10.1177/1077801208325087.

I am truly grateful to the Hogg Foundation for your support of my dissertation as the Frances Fowler Wallace Award paid for much of my travel to the border communities  where my interviews were conducted. Thank you for all the good work that you do to improve health and well-being in the state of Texas and beyond.