A caregiver comforts and older man

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Diana Gaillardetz strives to make every day a little bit better for her clients at Good Shepherd Community Care, the oldest hospice in Massachusetts.

She says she works to build strong relationships with the people she looks after, listening to their stories and helping them manage the challenges of terminal illness. 

“I feel this is a sacred space to be in with people,” says Gaillardetz, who plans to receive her master’s degree from the Boston College School of Social Work in May. “I hope that every time I visit someone, there’s some way I’m able to help them have a good day.”

Gaillardetz landed an internship at the hospice as part of the Spier Fellows in Aging Program, which prepares social workers to support the health and well-being of older adults. She is one of five current students in the older adults and families field of practice to receive the annual fellowship, which includes $3,000 stipends, mentorship, and exclusive seminars from experts in the field. One recent presentation focused on how to support the caregivers of people with dementia, which will likely affect nearly 13 million adults 65 and over by 2050.

Gaillardetz says she applied for the fellowship because she wants to play an active role in supporting older adults, the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States. After she graduates in the spring, she hopes to continue working in the hospice industry.

“Older adults are so important, especially for the future,” she says. “Over 10,000 people become 65 every day, but we don’t have the workforce to be able to take care of them.”

Although Gaillardetz took a roundabout route to social work, she has a long history of caring for older adults both personally and professionally. Her mother-in-law had dementia, she says, and she looked after her adoptive father until he died at 95.

Older adults are so important, especially for the future. Over 10,000 people become 65 every day, but we don’t have the workforce to be able to take care of them.
Diana Gaillardetz, MSW’22

As she was working toward a master’s in theological studies at a graduate school in San Antonio in the 90s, she took a job as director of senior adult ministries for a church in Houston. Her responsibilities included planning weekly programs for more than 180 older adults and running life review groups in which participants recalled past experiences in order to achieve a sense of peace.

Over the past 15 years, Gaillardetz has advocated for older adults in Toledo, Ohio, assessed the state of long-term care facilities in Boston, and developed programs for a senior living community just seven miles from the BC campus. 

It was during her stint as the program coordinator for NewBridge on the Charles from 2016 to 2018 that she decided to get a master’s in social work. Although her job was to run the programs for the senior living community, she often found herself addressing the needs of older adults and realized that expertise in social work would enable her to play a more active role in their lives. One time, Gaillardetz comforted a woman who was experiencing sundowning—restlessness, agitation, or confusion that can begin or worsen as daylight begins to fade.

“I saw some ways that I could be a part of people’s lives that move beyond ministry,” she recalls.

Gaillardetz’s professors and colleagues describe her as “curious,” “compassionate,” and “committed to improving the quality of life of older adults.” She is ambitious, they say, with a knack for providing hope for emotional healing.

“Diana is not afraid of having difficult conversations,” says Sharon Arkoff, her supervisor at Good Shepherd Community Care. “She is able to use her training and her life experience to help clients feel a sense of comfort and being supported even through the grief or trauma of a terminal diagnosis.”

Diana Gaillardetz

Diana Gaillardetz. Courtesy photo.

Christina Matz, an associate professor who runs the Spier Fellows in Aging Program, says Gaillardetz has excelled in the classroom, pointing to her strong written and verbal communication skills. In fact, her current GPA is 3.9. But Matz is also impressed by her student’s kindness, patience, and gentle demeanor. 

“She understands that so much of this work is just being aware, listening, paying attention, and bearing witness and coming to terms with all the stuff you can’t control,” says Matz, who chairs the older adults and families field of practice. “I think both her and her fellow cohort members recognize that empathy is our No.1 job in this work—and in this world—and this will serve them well in both their professional and personal lives.”

Gaillardetz credits her professors with preparing her to provide compassionate support to clients and families at Good Shepherd. She says one class, “Research Methods in Social Work Practice,” taught her how to find good resources and present the evidence-based benefits of hospice care to her clients’ loved ones. 

“The research has found that people who go to hospice have longer and higher quality lives than those who don’t,” she says. “The reason is because, in hospice, we try to manage pain and give them lots of emotional support.” 

Gaillardetz encourages BC students to consider gerontological social work, noting that the need for experts in the field is great. According to the National Association of Social Workers, up to 70,000 social workers who specialize in older adults will be required to help address the rapidly aging population by 2030. “If you are interested in working with older adults,” she says, “this kind of training and certification are unique around the nation.”

The deadline to apply for the Spier Fellows in Aging program for the 2022-2023 academic year is Thursday, June 30, 2022.