Scholar of aging (and Distinguished University Professor) Eva Kahana awarded Hovorka Prize

Eva KahanaEva Kahana hid in a church during the Holocaust—surviving with her family through Nazi occupation of Hungary and efforts to eradicate the country’s Jewish population—only to then come of age under grim Communist rule in Hungary.

Still, even through a childhood shaped by some of the century’s most oppressive forces, Kahana was raised on the idea that she had responsibility to make a better world than the one she was born into.

During a 50-plus year (and counting) career in sociology, Kahana has explored the resilience of people through stress and age, including how they cope and marshal support, while finding ways to survive.

Her achievement is due, in no small part, to an upbeat approach and unflagging curiosity forged at an early age.

“I am a happy workaholic. I work most of the time. Would I like to go to the movies? Sure, but I’d rather work,” said Kahana, the Pierce T. and Elizabeth D. Robson Professor of the Humanities and Distinguished University Professor.

“Work, for me, is not that different from play,” added Kahana, who also is the director of the Elderly Care Research Center at Case Western Reserve University, which she established three decades ago.

Now, among her many awards won is one of the university’s highest forms of recognition: the 2016 Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize—given to those who have made extraordinary contributions to their academic field and to Case Western Reserve.

Kahana will receive the award during commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 15.

Studying aging while young

After emigrating to Boston at 15 with next to nothing, including lack of English skills, Kahana graduated high school in only 18 months.

As an only child in a family who were strangers in their new country, books often were her closest companions before she left home for Stern College of Yeshiva University in New York (and since became its first alumna to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane letters).

As an undergrad, Kahana studied history and met her husband, Boaz Kahana—now 82, he still is a full-time professor of psychology at Cleveland State University—who, on their dates, lectured her about psychology. They recently celebrated their 54th anniversary.

Even now, over coffee and evening meals, she says they still share and discuss with each other what they’ve learned lately. “That’s our kind of dinner table conversation,” she said.

Kahana eventually pivoted to psychology in graduate school (convinced by Boaz), and then to sociology, to pursue her PhD at the University of Chicago.

“Having come from difficult experiences with war and regimes, I became less interested in individuals and more intrigued by the larger environment on a person,” said Kahana. “So I switched to sociology. I wanted to understand what society does to either improve life situations or make them more difficult.”

When Kahana began in gerontology (the study of aging), the discipline was young—and her classmates and colleagues were taken aback by someone in her 20s jumping into the field.

“They’d say, ‘Isn’t that depressing?’” recalled Kahana. “No—older people are lucky. They are survivors of life. I never found them off-putting or depressing.”

Work to be done

As an internationally known academic, Kahana has published more than 200 articles and book chapters, three co-authored books, and three edited volumes on an array of topics, including altruism, the proactivity of older adults in promoting successful aging, issues of caregiving and care-getting, environmental influences on older persons and many other topics.

“I’ve always asked questions based on my lived experience: I was fascinated by the wisdom of older people because of two grandmothers who I grew close to,” said Kahana. “I’ve been walking through life, seeing interesting phenomena and then asking questions about them. That’s driven my work.”

During the past decade, the major thrust of Kahana’s research has been on adaptation to old age among adventurous older people who relocate to the Sun Belt late in life. She has also been continuously funded for her research by the National Institutes of Health since 1970.

Kahana enjoys teaching and actively advises students—duties she says constitute their own intrinsic award; through her reputation as a mentor and educator also earned her the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching and Mentoring from the university.

“Together, my students and I are co-learners. Even though I’m 75, I still have wonderment that I can share with them,” she said.

Kahana continues to collaborate with colleagues around the university, while holding joint appointments in the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, the School of Medicine and the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

In the past year alone, Kahana has published nine scholarly articles and chapters, co-authored a book, and delivered more than a dozen conference presentations.

“Whatever motivates people to retire, I guess I don’t possess those characteristics,” said Kahana. “There is nothing that I can think of that I would rather do than learn and teach and discover.”