Conor McDermott Welch, MSW ’20

Conor McDermott Welch, MSW ’20

While studying psychology as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, Conor McDermott Welch, MSW ’20, took a class—Adulthood and Aging—that set him on a path to Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) to pursue a master’s degree in social work with a clinical specialization focused on Older Adults and Families.

In that life-changing class, McDermott Welch learned from U.S. Census data that by 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older was projected to be 88.5 million, more than double the 2010 projected population of 40.2 million. His professor postulated that due to an ageist and death-phobic culture in the U.S., the country would be financially, spiritually, and emotionally unprepared to deal with this reality. Confronted with this startling information, McDermott Welch knew he wanted to be part of the solution.

To that end, he opted to pursue an MSW and become a social worker rather than a mental health counselor. As he sees it, the field of social work is ideally suited to advance his goals of working with seniors and with the institutions that shape macro policies that affect this population.

After his first semester at BCSSW, McDermott Welch applied to the Spier Fellows in Aging program. He was one of five MSW students selected for its inaugural cohort. The program—led by Associate Professor Christina Matz—aims to “foster excellence in geriatric social work education and to build a workforce of trained social work professionals who can support the health and well-being of our rapidly aging population.” McDermott Welch is grateful to be a Spier Fellow. “I value being able to rely on and learn from a tight community of students, professors, and professionals with shared values but different perspectives and experiences,“ he says.

As a Spier Fellow, McDermott Welch spends three days a week working with seniors: two at the Brookline Senior Center, which is part of that town’s Council on Aging, the organization responsible for planning and providing comprehensive services in collaboration with other town agencies and community service providers to improve the quality of life for Brookline residents aged 60 and older. He also spends one day a week at the Hebrew SeniorLife (HSL) independent residences in Brookline. HSL—an affiliate of Harvard Medical School—is the largest nonprofit provider of senior health care and living communities in New England.

McDermott Welch provides one-on-one support to seniors—often male clients—as he is the only male social work intern at both organizations. He conducts informal needs assessments to determine which services his clients require and then helps them engage resources aimed at preserving their independence, such as help paying bills, home health assistance, transportation, or food delivery.

Beyond delivering practical guidance, providing companionship and emotional support are paramount to his work. “I start by building a trusting relationship,” says McDermott Welch, who considers trust a critical component for a productive relationship with his clients. “Sometimes the flood gates open up and I am privileged to hear incredible life stories.” McDermott Welch recounts the time a client, whom he was helping deal with caregiving issues for his wife with Alzheimer’s, shared intense stories about his role as a soldier in WWII.

I start by building a trusting relationship. Sometimes the flood gates open up and I am privileged to hear incredible life stories.
Conor McDermott Welch

He has learned that it’s critical to be fully present with people in order to support them through crises and adversity. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a 67-year-old woman who has a rare form of Parkinson’s disease and have been successful in giving her a safe space to fully express emotions of fear and loss as she deals with this frightening, degenerative condition. I am honored to be able to support her and find it extremely rewarding,” explains McDermott Welch.

He also leads group activities, including a mindfulness and forgiveness program at the Brookline Senior Center based on the book The Tao of Forgiveness: The Healing Power of Forgiving Others and Yourself. For this six-week program, McDermott Welch and another graduate student use parables, exercises, and meditation to help seniors make peace with unresolved issues. “I am amazed at the amount of trust the program participants have with each other as they share personal stories of adversity and loss,” he says. On the other end of the spectrum, he leads lighthearted monthly birthday lunch celebrations, often acting as the master of ceremonies. “My most profound takeaway from all my hands-on field work is the transformative power of community.”

Beyond weekly feedback sessions with his field placement supervisors, as a Spier Fellow, McDermott Welch benefits from a diverse group of mentors. He meets monthly with a retired geriatric social worker who shares insights and reflections from her career. He also enjoys a close relationship with his advisor, Christina Matz, associate professor and chair of the Older Adults & Families Field of Practice and director of the Spier Fellows in Aging program. “I am fortunate to have the head of my program as my advisor,” he says. “Professor Matz provides academic, professional, and emotional support. It really helps to have an open dialogue with her and others who understand and are supportive, especially as my professional work is closely tied to my long-standing role as a caregiver to my father, who experienced a debilitating brain injury when I was a young child.”

As a Spier Fellow, McDermott Welch also has the opportunity to get an in-depth view of his four Spier colleagues’ field placement experiences—at Good Shepherd Community Hospice, Brockton Veterans Administration Medical Center, and an oncology ward at a hospital in New Hampshire. “These integrated seminars provide me with the opportunity to gain a 360-degree view of different career choices—not only the technical details but also the ensuing professional and personal demands,” he says.

McDermott Welch credits his varied and deep experiences as a Spier Fellow with reassuring him that he is on the right career path. Following graduation in May, he intends to continue working with seniors in the Greater Boston area, helping them to live independently, transition to more assistance as needed, and when necessary, assist with dignified end-of life-care. He looks forward to finding a community-based elder services position—at a council on aging or a mission-driven nonprofit such as HSL. “Being a Spier Fellow has provided me with a solid foundation to launch my career,” he says. “I encourage BCSSW students interested in serving older adults to apply.”