Meet Kristine Ajrouch

MCCFAD Co-Director joins RCGD as research professor, with new Healthy Aging grant addressing dementia-related stigma among MENA-Americans 

Kristine Ajrouch

Growing up in an immigrant family, Kristine Ajrouch (Ahzh-ROOSH) has always been intrigued by people who immigrated – how they learned to think and talk in a new language. A native of Detroit, her maternal grandparents left Lebanon in the early 1900s and her father immigrated to the US from Iran via Paris, where he attended medical school as part of a resident exchange program with the University of Michigan.

Kristine Ajrouch, the co-director of the Michigan Center for Contextual Factors in Alzheimer’s Disease (MCCFAD), has now joined the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research as a full-time Research Professor, where she will maintain her career commitment to making Middle Eastern and Arab Americans visible.

Cross-cultural curiosity

Ajrouch’s curiosity about cross-cultural issues led her to develop an interest in ethnic identity formation among adolescent children of immigrants– her dissertation topic in Sociology completed at Wayne State University, following a master’s in Communication Studies at Michigan. 

“One recurring statement I heard during that data collection was that these youth considered themselves different from ‘Americans’ because they would never put their parents in a nursing home,” said Ajrouch. “That sentiment intrigued me, as I realized these youth did not grow up with grandparents around for the most part. So what did they know about caring for older family members?”

That question led Ajrouch to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship in aging in the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where she learned the need to take a life course approach to truly understand social life, she said.

Ajrouch carried that approach into a Fulbright in Beirut, Lebanon during 2008 and her teaching at Eastern Michigan University where she was affiliated from 2000 until her retirement this year, with the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology.

Making Middle Eastern and Arab Americans visible

“My work now focuses on all age groups, with a special interest in Middle Eastern and Arab Americans– given that they are a growing segment of the American mosaic, yet so little is known about this group. Middle Eastern and Arab Americans are all but invisible in large data sets, yet the little data that is available suggests their experiences are distinct from that of White Americans, the racial category to which they have historically been linked.”

This year, the US federal Office of Management and Budget approved revisions to race and ethnicity data collection across federal agencies that will put a new Middle East and North African (MENA) category on the 2030 Census. For decades previously, U.S. MENA residents have been classified by the government as White, masking important demographic markers such as income, health, and education.

Ajrouch’s commitment to raising visibility for these populations through her research has given her a unique opportunity to advance science in the public interest by expanding traditional racial/ethnic categories in the quest to address health disparities.

Group dynamics, dementia and health

What is it that uniquely protects or threatens the health of various demographic groups? What risks and protective factors are universal for promoting good health? These central questions drive Ajrouch’s work, and research on group dynamics through the life course has been a central component of her scholarship.

“I am thrilled to join RCGD as I seek to understand the dynamics of human social behaviors,” said Ajrouch. “ My current program of research is situated in life course studies, with specific interest in health disparities. Most recently, I have begun to investigate the social and behavioral aspects of health in later life, with an emphasis on cognitive function.”

Ajrouch connected with RCGD when proposing the creation of the Michigan Center for Contextual Factors in Alzheimer’s Disease (MCCFAD), an Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research funded by the National Institute on Aging. MCCFAD works to advance dementia research in underserved and underrepresented communities and to diversify the research workforce dedicated to healthy aging.

“I hope to be able to have a platform that elevates the impact of the research to which I am deeply committed, while at the same time forge new collaborations in the quest to conduct research in the public interest,” said Ajrouch, who is also an affiliate of the Survey Research Center and the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging (MICDA).

Healthy Aging grant

Ajrouch joins RCGD with a new $400K Healthy Aging grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to address the stigma associated with having dementia in the Arab/Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) American community. The project, “If it’s Mentionable, it’s Manageable,” will involve community partners in Wayne County to develop culturally appropriate programming and efforts to increase awareness of dementia services and reduce stigma related to the disease. Through continuing education modules, dementia awareness events, a Community Health Worker ambassador program, and a messaging campaign, these efforts—in English and Arabic—will facilitate resource seeking and sharing by community members and health professionals. While the project focuses on a particular minority community that faces high levels of dementia stigma, the tools and processes developed will be widely applicable.

The title of the grant draws on a quote from the PBS icon Fred Rogers that Ajrouch remembered from the biographical drama, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. “Anything that’s human is mentionable,” Rogers famously said. “And anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” In the movie, Mister Rogers delivers the line to help a family break through the discomfort of talking about death. 

“It was such a profound observation, and it just stuck with me,” said Ajrouch. “I thought it was a perfect way to think about overcoming stigma.”

This post was written by Tevah Platt, communications manager for the Research Center for Group Dynamics.