Establishing Humanity Through Personal Objects

Wooden Clog

What does a wooden clog mean to you? Probably nothing.  

To one specific individual, this material object provides a sense of identity, comfort, and wholeness. It is not just a wooden clog but a sentimental reminder of one’s own humanity. 

This object was gifted to Seth Dornisch, a PhD student in Anthropology with a background in medical speech pathology. As a medical speech pathologist, Dornisch worked in end-of-life care facilities – like nursing homes and assisted living facilities – supporting patients with cognition and communication difficulties. He worked in this role for five years, and in this time was able to form meaningful connections with people approaching the ends of their lives.  

One patient in particular stood out to him, the woman who gifted him the wooden clog. Dornisch had treated her for years, first in a nursing home and then continued private treatment with her in an assisted living facility. He learned that she had lived through the German occupation in the Netherlands. She came to the US at around 19 years old, bringing only a few belongings with her. She found success as an interior designer, a career that showcases the importance of materiality to personal identity. Material objects were important to her; she felt incomplete without her belongings because they represented her. She gave Dornisch one of these objects when he was leaving to begin his education at UMass. The significance of this little Dutch shoe was not lost on Dornisch. He felt that this was such a special gift because it had meant so much to her and he was touched that she wanted him to keep it. 

Dornisch’s experience working with individuals in the end-of-life transition has inspired his research at UMass. He saw firsthand all psychological, emotional, social, and physiological changes that occur in the late stages of life, which helped him focus his social research questions.  

“What I’m planning to do for my dissertation is look at the way people transition through spaces and places as they approach the end of their life.” As an anthropologist, Dornisch will pull from different subfields of anthropology including archaeology. Archaeology is “the study of human materiality, of human culture via material things, and the things that take on value because humans ascribe them value. That includes places and spaces as well as objects you can hold.” 

Dornisch found that in his clinical work, “the things that are meaningful to people often don’t move with them in a way that would be beneficial if people were aware of the importance of material things towards identity, feeling connected, and memory.” As people age and the ability to communicate starts to degrade, other aspects of well-being start to degrade too. The importance of materiality really thrives in this space. The words and memories that are lost with age are still captured in sentimental objects. 

Another important aspect Dornisch plans to include in his research is how family dynamics impact materiality late in life. In talking about his clinical experience, he said “[he] found that people with adult children don’t necessarily have deeper relational experiences as they go towards the end of their life but what they do have is someone to make sure their material stuff travels with them. People who don’t have kids are much less likely to have that material value travel with them… Those are the people I think put the most value into their material things because they don’t have all these other people to attach their memories to and to identify with.” It is unclear if the importance of materiality increases with age, or if it decreases and the relationships and memories you possess become most important. Dornisch hopes to get at this question with his research. 

While Dornisch is still early on in his graduate career, he is planning to conduct field-based research to answer his questions. For him, this means finding skilled nursing, assisted living, and retirement communities across the country. He hopes to find these communities across different socioeconomic, geographical, and urban-rural dimensions and collect the same type of data. This data will be both qualitative from conversations and interviews with people, and quantitative from surveys and questionnaires.  

When speaking to Dornisch, this end-of-life transition never sounded sad or scary. He said he often felt as if he had fifty grandparents at a time providing wisdom. Dornisch felt the most valuable thing he was able to give to his patients was a sense of humanity. He listened to them with genuine interest, asked them what was important to them now and how that is changed across the lifespan. He said, “I saw people bloom. They had not been asked those questions in the last many years of their life -they just went from one place to the next based on their medical needs. No one was asking them what they wanted and why.”  

Dornisch is hoping that his research will re-establish people’s humanity in the things that are important to them and give people a stronger voice at the end of their lives. He wants to work towards cultural solutions to the lack of psychological, social, and spiritual care he saw working in healthcare at this phase of life. He hopes to consult with people developing spaces for older adults and offer insight to counselors that help them decide where to go, when, and what to bring.  

Written by Hannah Cournoyer, PhD student in Neuroscience & Behavior, as part of the Graduate School's Public Writing Fellows Program.