Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Catching up with Dr. Joseph Nowinski ’67

Dr. Joseph Nowinski, a prominent family psychologist, has co-authored a book with Dr. Barbara Okun, titled Saying Goodbye. The book deals with how advances in modern medicine have resulted in extending life after a terminal diagnosis. As the nature of death and dying has changed, so has the way people grieve – it is a challenging and complex process. But according to Dr. Nowinski and Dr. Okun’s book, it can be one of the richest and most meaningful periods a family will ever share.

What was your major at Hofstra? Were you involved in any extracurricular activities on campus? 

I majored in engineering at Hofstra and went on to work for Grumman Aerospace for four years before deciding to change course and pursue a career in psychology. I was involved in the Engineering Club but also took advantage of many activities.

Did you enter Hofstra with the goal of being a psychologist? What attracted you to this field? 

Although I enjoyed science and was enthusiastic about the notion of working as an aerospace engineer, I also very much enjoyed the liberal arts electives I was able to take at Hofstra. There was a clear emphasis on having students emerge from Hofstra with a well-rounded education.

Did you have a favorite Hofstra professor or a professor who mentored you? 

I remember an English teacher by the name of Sam Toperoff who was somewhat unconventional, a bit intimidating, and very popular with his students. Sam had just had his first short story published in The Atlantic, followed by a novel. He challenged me several times in class, and as a result I became much more interested in literature. He inspired me to try my hand at writing, and I had a short story published in a Hofstra publication called The Word.

What psychological issues or conditions interest you most or do you consider your specialty, and why?  

I have been involved extensively in research in the area of addiction, and the majority of my publications are in that area. I am the principal author of Twelve Step Facilitation Therapy, which has undergone extensive peer review and is listed in the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. I first became interested in this area when I was director of mental health services at the University of Connecticut and became aware at that time that mental health professionals were not well prepared to understand and help people with substance abuse and addiction problems.

Getting to the new book, what was the impetus for co-writing this? Are you seeing a lot of clients dealing with end-of-life issues with regard to a parent or spouse? What are the mistakes or missteps you see most often – both by the caregiver and the loved one who needs care? 

Saying Goodbye came about because Dr. Okun and I decided that we wanted to write a book that we each wish we’d had when loved ones were diagnosed with cancer. Coping with a terminal or potentially terminal illness actually has a lot in common with dealing with an addiction. They both represent long-term problems that involve the patient as well as the patient’s family and loved ones.

When people talk about the growing elderly population, it’s usually in the context of how it’s impacting the health care system and the economy. Your book deals with the emotional toll on patients and family members who may be facing terminal illness. What general advice would you give people in terms of preparing for this stage of life? 

What we set out to do, based on extensive interviews with patients and families who were facing or had faced terminal illness, was to create a “road map” that people can use as a guide when they find themselves faced with a terminal diagnosis. Today such a diagnosis typically represents the beginning of a protracted process that is stressful and confusing to all involved. Whereas modern medicine is focused on extending life, our focus in the book is on helping patients and their families make sense of what is going on, what they can expect to deal with as time goes on, and what they can do to make this prolonged crisis more manageable.

What are some other projects you are working on? 

I am currently working on a book that presents a new way of looking at addiction that will be co-published by Harvard and Hazelden next spring.


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