Theirs is a passion too few of us understand.
Michele grew up surrounded by the elders of her family and the
richness they bring to life. Ken, who spent years grieving his
parents' premature deaths, is committed to helping others through
For Mary, the last seven years of her mother's life heightened her
awareness of geriatric mental health issues and the critical role of
caregivers. Dyan, who changed careers to ease a growing sense that "a
piece was missing" in her life, found what she was looking for in
geriatric social work.
The four graduate students in the University of Maine School of
Social Work spent the last academic year in a Geriatric Practicum
Partnership Program (GPPP), made possible by a grant from the John A.
Hartford Foundation under the auspices of the New York Academy of
Medicine's Social Work Leadership Institute. The program provided
specialized training in placements and rotations in agencies for
The goal is to increase the number of geriatric social workers and
raise interest in aging as a field of practice among students.
The emphasis comes in light of the cresting elder wave — aging Baby
"We're educating students to be proactive in the lives of older
adults," says Nancy Kelly, field coordinator for the School of Social
Work who codirects Maine's GPPP with Len Kaye, director of UMaine's
Center on Aging. "Most people think of elders as being at the end of
their lives, but we're working with students to view them in the act
With such specialized training, Master of Social Work (MSW)
graduates provide services like counseling to elders in long-term care
facilities and their families; work with assisted-living facilities
and elders' families to find placements where mental health needs can
be met; offer therapy as part of hospice services; and help to set
policy and advocate for services to meet elders' needs.
"They graduate with a sense of how exciting it is to work with this
age group, looking at the elders as the individuals they always were
and will be," says Marjie Harris, coordinator of Maine GPPP. "It has
to do with being part of a person's life at such an intense time and
what an honor it is to be part of their life journey — helping them
live until they die."
Michele Garrity, Brewer
Brewer Rehabilitation and Living Center, Long-term Care
Michele Garrity is used to people being surprised that, at 25, she
prefers working with the elderly, not children and families. But Garrity's career choice is as atypical as her upbringing that
influenced her decision to pursue geriatric social work.
Growing up in Johnstown, Pa., Garrity was close to her four
grandparents and two great-grandparents literally (they all lived
within a mile radius of each other) and figuratively.
"From them, I learned respect," says Garrity. "When they said
something, we listened. Hard work was huge, too. I also learned the
value of friendship and creating those supports for yourself."
As an undergraduate in human development and family studies at Penn
State, Garrity worked with youngsters for two years. But in her first
year at UMaine, one of her graduate field placements was at Maine
Cancer Consortium, where she assisted elders with their
healthcare-related issues. In that setting, Garrity says she was on
"I have worked with children and families, but didn't get nearly as
much out of the experience as I did working with older people. They
have so much experience and knowledge. Sitting and talking with elders
In GPPP, Garrity focused on chronic and terminal illnesses of
elders in her primary practicum at Brewer Rehabilitation and Living
Center. Two days a week, she worked with elders and their families,
helping to coordinate care and ensuring that needs were met.
"I like the caregiver piece," says Garrity, who is now pursing a
career as a hospice social worker. "I thought it would be hard working
with people who are dying. I'm not good with death. But doing visits
with a social worker at Hancock County HomeCare & Hospice, I saw how
dignifying the dying process can be."
People with chronic illness typically reach a point in their
treatment when they realize they will not get better, choosing then to
live the remainder of their lives as comfortably as possible, Garrity
explains. That's when a hospice social worker can help with grief and
fears, supporting both the elder and caregiver.
"The biggest surprise for me is how much I love hospice work. This
program gave me the chance to see that," Garrity says. "A lot of
people when they go into a social work program say they don't want to
work in geriatrics and aren't exposed to it. For me, the exposure
drove my desire."
Mary Kellogg, Bangor
Community Health and Counseling Services, Mental Health Care
In May, Mary Kellogg received her MSW degree from UMaine, two decades
after earning degrees in law and foreign service from Georgetown
The irony wasn't lost on the Bangor lawyer.
"I had a wonderful job in a legal practice," says Kellogg, "but I
wanted to get into work that related to people differently than I did
in law. And from the time I started in the School of Social Work, it
felt like the right thing for me, a different way of thinking about
In her primary practicum at Community Health and Counseling
Services in Bangor, Kellogg focused on geriatric mental health, which
is so inextricably linked to physical health in older adults. At the
center, Kellogg did mostly home-based therapy, with some case
management. In her rotations, she had access to elders and their care
providers in inpatient units at hospitals and mental health
"Exposure to the interdisciplinary collaboration was an important
part of my education," she says. "It opened my eyes. I was finding
work in geriatric mental health very satisfying."
Kellogg says she has learned important lessons about human
dynamics, and the environmental, social and economic factors that can
affect people's mental outlooks. She also came to better understand
the ongoing struggle of elders to navigate the often daunting and
fragmented system of social services.
"Understanding how different components of the system work is very
important in providing effective service to the elderly," says
Kellogg, who is considering a career in geriatric case management,
helping elders and their families find the services they need.
Her focus is in keeping with her view of elders as "people who have
lived rich and full lives, and who want to stay connected with
others." People like her mother, who was in declining health in the
last few years of her life.
"She opened my eyes to what it is like to try and help someone with
the sorts of needs she had," Kellogg says. "Yet even as the dementia
progressed, the core of who she was as a person remained. She helped
me understand this, and that was a gift."
Kenneth Gates, Belfast
Waldo County Home Health & Hospice, End-of-life Care
After a stint in the military and years of running his own
businesses, Ken Gates worked in the corporate world until he felt "a
quiet nudge from behind." Ageism.
That's when he decided to put his life experience to better use.
And he followed his heart.
Three years ago, at age 61, he enrolled in UMaine's School of
"I've always been interested in older folks. I seek them out for their
wisdom, their different perspective," he says.
"I lost my parents when they were in their 60s. I wasn't able to
help them wind down their lives. That's why clinical work with the
elderly is what I wanted desperately to do."
In his practicum with Waldo County Home Health & Hospice, Gates has
seen the physical struggles of aging adults. In his in-home hospice
therapy, he focused on the patient and caregiver until the day came
that only one remained; then it was time to turn his attention to the
"A lot of hospice work is with the patient who is progressing to
death, but our work doesn't stop when a person dies," Gates says.
"When someone moves on, the caregiver vacillates between remorse and
relief. We shift to the family, helping them through the bereavement,
especially two or three weeks after the funeral, when they're alone.
That's especially important in the case of someone losing a spouse."
For both the patient and caregiver, the hospice social worker is a
listener, facilitator and advocate, Gates says, often posing the
pertinent yet sensitive questions about estate planning and other
end-of-life directives. While modern medicine can provide physical
comfort like pain management, social workers like Gates offer
emotional and spiritual support.
During an in-home visit, that support may take the form of talking
about the past, taking down a letter to a family member far away or
playing a quiet game of cribbage. All the while listening and
"We're there to buoy them up, to give them a sense of belonging and
purpose," says Gates, whose new career may focus on palliative care.
"It's important that they know that their life has meaning. And that
they are not alone.
"There's a great deal of satisfaction in helping people empower
themselves. That's what social work is all about. We're not doing for
them, but helping them help themselves."
Gates says the experience also has taught him that one person can
make a difference in people's lives.
"I don't have the patience to change policy, but I admire people
who do. I need the short-term reinforcement that what I'm doing is
making a difference."
Dyan Villeneuve, Augusta
State Office of Elder Services, Policymaking
Dyan Villeneuve knows the passion of advocates for the elderly
working at the grassroots level throughout Maine to ensure older
adults get what they need to live healthy lives. She's also seen the
difference statewide policymaking can make for individuals.
Villeneuve hopes to be part of a concerted effort to bring issues
facing older adults more to the fore in preparation for the cresting
elder wave — aging Baby Boomers.
"I'd like to see this population get more respect in terms of
funding. It seems a lot of times with state, federal or private
funding, geriatrics is not considered 'sexy,'" she says. "People want
to focus on children and families, and the elder population gets
forgotten. I want to make elders — and their needs — more of a known
As an undergraduate in social work, Villeneuve discovered her love
of geriatrics while interning at Brewer Rehabilitation and Living
Center. Her interest in planning and policymaking surfaced during a
placement with the state Department of Health and Human Services'
Children's Services division.
"I like the idea of a large system like DHHS that can still react
and offer services to people on an individual basis," Villeneuve says.
"My supervisor was a social worker who had an amazing way of making
every person or family that dealt with her department feel as if she
was only working on what they needed. It was a very caring,
In the state's Office of Elder Services in Augusta, a division of
Health and Human Services, Villeneuve was involved in policy planning
activities, testimony before legislative committees and survey data
"This year focused me more on the political arena and I found the
energy at the Statehouse intoxicating," says Villeneuve. "I see myself
running for political office one day, something I didn't see myself
doing before this year. Social workers are perfectly suited because we
are trained broadly in how to deal with people and communities."
When it comes to older adults, an overarching concern statewide is
the need for more long-term care options. Communities need to work in
concert to achieve a larger voice of advocacy, presenting a unified
message that they're ready to plan for the challenges the elder wave
will bring. To be prepared, they need state guidance, support and
resources, Villeneuve says.
"I think our state needs to be more proactive and less reactive.
There are so many people in the state with a love for elders. We just
need to get all of them together to plan for the inevitable, important
issues like housing, transportation, healthy aging, integration of
generations in communities."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.