ASU student who works in end-of-life care says it can be a beautiful thing

‘I feel empowered when I do what’s right for them’

October 27, 2021

Many people mistakenly assume that gerontology, the study of aging and issues older people face, is sad or depressing.

Camille Miskin, who is earning her Master of Social Work degree at Arizona State University's School of Social Work, says she wants to change this misconception. view of a sunset from a lake Stock photo by Johannes Plenio/Unsplash Download Full Image

“I'm honored every time I get to be around someone who's trusted me to take care of their loved one. I'm not a nurse, but I do ensure that they get the best care possible,” Miskin said. “Just (like) someone who feels very driven to work with children, I feel driven to work with older adults. I feel empowered when I do what's right for them and being educated about their needs.”

Miskin said gerontology is not a taboo or somber subject. She said it can actually be a beautiful thing, especially when it comes to the gratitude shown by families at the death of a loved one.

“Under grief, you can have such a rainbow of experiences; it can come out as anger and frustration and denial. For me, grief work is also a work of gratitude. …That is one of the most beautiful things. People are just super grateful that you can hold the space for their mourning,” Miskin said.

She discovered a passion for end-of-life culture when she spent a year as a foreign exchange student in Germany.

Miskin said there, she observed a stark contrast between how people of other cultures view death and honor the dead compared with Americans.

Camille Miskin, MSW student, graduate student, School of Social Work, ASU

Social work graduate student Camille Miskin works with people nearing the end of life and their families. Photo courtesy of Camille Miskin

“It wasn't exactly about end of life or aging. Over there, I just kind of felt that they embraced their history head on; they did so much to memorialize those who died,” Miskin said.

Not only did the exchange year open her mind, but so did a sociology professor. The professor, who was also a chaplain, provided spiritual support to those in emergency rooms, Miskin said.

“She asked me a ton of questions on the topic of death that I could not answer, like, ‘Why do we always need to be embalmed? Why is it that families end up paying about $8,000 just to have their family members buried? Is that culturally needed? Is it some sort of rule that we follow?’” Miskin said.

Along with wanting to change some Americans’ misconceptions of gerontology and how they view death, Miskin said she also wants them to be more comfortable when talking about it.

One of her favorite recommendations is Death Over Dinner, a website that declares it has “gathered dozens of medical and wellness leaders to cast an unflinching eye at end of life … (with) an uplifting interactive adventure that transforms this seemingly difficult conversation into one of deep engagement, insight and empowerment.”

Miskin said she often uses the site with people nearing the end of life and their loved ones to make sure that anyone approaching death can have the final arrangements they want.

Family members often find planning a funeral or final resting place for a loved one incredibly overwhelming. But participating in the Death Over Dinner exercise can reduce family members’ stress.

“For me, it's imperative that people start thinking about (death) and learning about it to normalize the process. I want it to be an equal education opportunity for every population,” Miskin said.

Miskin continues to share her experiences and works to encourage more social work students to enter her field. She received a scholarship from the Pima Council on Aging, whose programs and service partners help older adults age well.

The scholarship is important to Miskin, who said it helped motivate her to continue this work.

“Someone felt that it was important to support a student like me. …The activism for older people in the U.S. is not glamorous,” Miskin said. “I was working two or three jobs at the time to pay my tuition. So, honestly, it was fantastic for me.”

Miskin said that once she receives her degree, she wants to become a medical social worker. She said she wants to work in a hospice and become a death doula, a person who helps someone at the end of their life, like a birth doula or midwife does at the beginning.

“Near the end of life, it all comes down to who you are as a person and the unique beliefs or values which served as your foundation, which is very beautiful,” she said.

Written by Morgan Carden, student journalist for the ASU School of Social Work. 

New book by ASU professor tracks a terraced landscape first built by the Aztecs

October 27, 2021

Searching for ancient Aztec houses, archaeologist Michael E. Smith began exploring the terraced landscape of Calixtlahuaca, in central Mexico, more than 15 years ago.

Hoping to study the homes of Aztec farmers, Smith and his team quickly found something surprising: the stair-like terraces built there by the Aztecs were modified by Mexican farmers hundreds of years later. Maguey Plant, also known as the Agave plant with Calixtlahuaca Temple in background A temple in Calixtlahuaca, in central Mexico. Photo courtesy of Michael E. Smith Download Full Image

That discovery launched a years-long effort to trace the history of the site, starting with the Aztec period around A.D. 1100. What the team found, and what they learned about the research process along the way, is documented in a new book, “The Geoarchaeology of a Terraced Landscape.”

“This book is the most detailed analysis of ancient terracing certainly in central Mexico, maybe even all of Mesoamerica,” Smith said.

Terracing is used on hillsides and in mountain areas to make flat land for homes and farms. Slopes are flattened into level areas that often look like large staircases. Where there isn’t enough flat land, terracing gives farmers an area to grow crops. It also decreases erosion. 

Smith, a professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, has studied the Aztecs extensively, publishing numerous journal articles and several books over his career. With approval from the Mexican federal government, he initiated the excavation in Calixtlahuaca to find and study homes — not those of kings and the elite, but those that would tell him more about daily life and society. 

Because of his previous experience excavating agricultural terraces, Smith knew he would need expert help from a geoarchaeologist on the site. Geoarchaeologists study terrain, soil and rocks to help establish the history of a site like Calixtlahuaca. Geoarchaeologists Charles D. Frederick, a research fellow at the University of Texas, and Aleksander Borejsza, a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, answered the call. 

They discovered the Aztec terraces were modified and expanded within the last 100 years. When they showed Smith that the Aztec terraces were modified and not in their original form, he was initially “extremely bummed out.” But who did this? And why would they make the already flat terraces larger? The story of Calixtlahuaca after the Spanish conquest turned out to be more interesting than he first thought. 

The team believes the answers are linked to the political history of the region. After the Spanish conquest, populations declined in central Mexico from disease. The people of Calixtlahuaca were moved to the city of Toluca, which became the area’s central city. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large landowners in Mexico gained power and began pushing people off the best farmland. 

When this happened, farming in Calixtlahuaca returned to the terraces built by the Aztecs. But Smith explains that the original terraces were too narrow for their oxen, horses and plows to turn; they had to modernize. The team believes farmers destroyed some of the higher terraces in order to widen the lower terraces and make enough room for their plows to turn around. 

Another key finding for Smith was being able to date and determine what caused erosion in Calixtlahuaca.

Book Cover for "The Geoarchaeology of A Terraced Landscape" the image is of central Mexico

Cover image courtesy of the University of Utah Press

There has been a long scholarly debate — the so-called Columbian debate — about the reasons for soil erosion in central Mexico. One side claimed the Aztecs overused the land because of population growth. The other theory is that sheep, brought in by the Spaniards, had eaten so much vegetation that it caused the soil to erode.  

Smith and the team have a third explanation: They believe the erosion at Calixtlahuaca actually happened because the site was abandoned for several centuries after the Spaniards arrived. 

“It looks like the reason for the erosion was not that sheep were brought in — there’s not much evidence for sheep in that area,” Smith said. “It’s that you have this terrace landscape that controls erosion, it controls runoff, and as long as you maintain it it’s fine. But when the system is abandoned, that’s when erosion happens.” 

As evidence, they point to the fact that eroding terrace deposits completely covered the Aztec royal palace at the base of the mountain. 

The book also serves as a road map for future studies of terracing. The authors discuss the range of research methods they used during the project, including excavation, soil analysis, radiocarbon dating and document reviews.

The Geoarchaeology of a Terraced Landscape,” written by Borejsza, freelance archaeologist Isabel Rodríguez López, Frederick and Smith, published in October from the University of Utah Press.

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change