High angle shot of an unrecognizable senior man being consoled by a woman in his home

Photo by iStock.

As the number of older adults in the U.S. continues to rise, the Boston College School of Social Work has been training master’s students to support the health and well-being of people aged 65 and up.

Thanks to the school’s Spier Fellows in Aging program, launched in 2019, more than two dozen students have completed coursework, field placements, and community service projects aimed at preparing them to serve the nation’s fastest growing segment of the population.

“There’s just a huge, growing need for social workers who are trained to work with older adults,” said Christina Matz, an associate professor who runs the fellowship program. “People don’t often recognize the diverse ways in which social workers can serve older adults and don’t get a sense for how satisfying and important this work is.”

Over the past four years, fellows have completed internships at hospitals, retirement communities, and labs dedicated to improving quality of life for older adults. They have assessed the psychological health of veterans, comforted cancer patients, and worked with clients to preserve their independence, connecting them to services that help them pay bills and order groceries. 

Josue Velasquez Higueros, MSW’24, created an eight-session intervention to improve the mental health of his older clients at La Alianza Hispana, a community-based organization that provides culturally and linguistically appropriate services to the Latinx community in Boston. Among other topics, sessions focused on boosting self-esteem, grieving the loss of a loved one, and living a life of purpose. 

“The program director noticed that there was so much improvement in their moods and their mental health after the intervention,” said Velasquez Higueros, one of 10 fellows this year. “They seemed happier. They were more excited.”

As an intern at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Waltham, Massachusetts, 2022-2023 Fellow Jessica Roque helped increase public awareness of dementia. The condition, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, will likely affect nearly 13 million adults 65 and over by 2050. 

Roque used Dementia Friends—a program developed by the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom to change the way people think, act, and talk about dementia—to teach members of community organizations about the condition. During these information sessions, she told participants what it’s like to live with dementia; gave them tips for communicating with people with the condition; and then encouraged them to turn their newfound knowledge into action by helping people affected by dementia in their community.

Portrait of Assoc. Prof. Christina Metz (BCSSW) who researches the benefits of social purpose-related work, e.g. volunteering, technological interventions for older adults, etc.

Christina Matz. Courtesy photo.

Roque, who teamed up with Fellows Vasilia Kavadas, Angela Juliano, and Eric McLaughlin to bring the program to BCSSW in March, said her interest in improving the lives of people with dementia stems from her dedication to ensuring older adults remain involved in society. “We’re all going to be older adults one day, and I think it’s important to realize we can’t just forget about this population,” said Roque, a student in the Advanced Standing program who graduated Monday and plans to continue working with older adults. “We’re so focused on making sure that things are equitable. Why are we leaving older adults out of that? Why are we forgetting about them so often?”

Many fellows, including Roque, have led integrative seminars at their field agencies, exposing their peers to the range of career paths in aging. One student provided a 360-degree view of Good Shepherd Community Care, the oldest hospice in Massachusetts. Another gave a snapshot of life as a social worker in the emergency department at Tufts Medical Center. A third, who worked for Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, delved into the complexities of Social Security and Medicare. 

Matz described the integrative seminars as the “biggest benefit” of the fellowship, which includes $3,000 stipends through the support of the Spier Family Foundation. “I think some people come to this work with very specific notions of what they can do in this area,” she said. “But we get them on site to interact with people who are working in community settings and medical settings and nursing homes and assisted living settings, but also more macro settings.”

Roque said the seminars reshaped her career path, boosting her interest in working in hospice care and becoming a Licensed Certified Social Worker. “The seminar at Tufts Medical Center really touched me,” she said. “I’m now considering getting an LCSW and having that in my back pocket. When the time comes, I want to be open to entering the hospice field.” 

In addition to completing an internship in aging, fellows must agree to take at least two of BCSSW’s three courses in aging: Practice in Health and Mental Health Settings with Older Adults; Policy for an Aging Society; and Dying, Grief, and Bereavement. These courses, taken as a whole, train students to handle the special challenges of reaching older adults, a client population that’s often invisible to service providers despite a near ubiquitous presence. 

Josue Velasquez Higueros

Josue Velasquez Higueros. Courtesy photo.

A report from the Administration on Aging has found that more than 1 in 6 people living in the U.S. were 65 or older in 2020. Nearly 81 million residents will be 65 or older by 2040, more than double the number in 2000. And over 10,000 people turn 65 every day

Fellows said that their personal and professional experiences have played a major role in their decision to work with older adults. Diana Gaillardetz, a fellow last year, had a long history of caring for people as they aged. Her mother-in-law had dementia, she said, and she looked after her adoptive father until he died at 95. Before enrolling at BCSSW, she had also 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 campus.

As an undergraduate, Roque volunteered for the Alzheimer’s Project in Tallahassee, Florida, a nonprofit that provides comfort, support, and assistance to people with memory disorders. When she moved to Boston, she served as a program coordinator in the memory care unit of an assisted living facility called the Goddard House.

Roque felt like she had found her calling. “I could communicate really well with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” she recalled. “I found meaningful activities for us to do together and built relationships among the residents. I just felt like I was with my friends when I was there. So I decided I wanted to keep working with older adults and shaped my degree around working in that field.”

Velasquez Higueros said his grandmother died of dementia. His mother, now an older adult who grew up on the Guatemala-Mexico border, often struggles to access the resources she needs to thrive. And before he came to BC in 2022, he spent two years working with older people as a case manager for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

“I see the need to help older adults navigate the system. There’s a lot of need for resources,” said Velasquez Higueros, who studies in the Latinx Communities field of practice. “We really need more people, specifically social workers, to help guide them and help them age in place where they feel comfortable and supported.”

The Quilt of Memories

The Quilt of Memories. Courtesy photo.

As part of a community service project, he designed a quilt to honor the memory of older adults who have positively impacted BCSSW students. More than a dozen students, including several fellows, decorated pieces of fabric to celebrate the lives of the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or mentors who have helped shape who they have become and then wrote letters, poems, or vignettes to explain the decorations, which Velasquez Higueros sewed together.

The Quilt of Memories—which measures 61 inches by 46 inches and is slated to be displayed in the Social Work Library—includes a drawing of a pair of glasses, a painting of a butterfly hovering in the sky, and patchwork depicting a coffee mug.

“The idea came out of commemorating those older adults in our lives that we have lost,” said Velasquez Higueros. “It’s kind of beautiful to see those memories that people carry with them about their relatives.”

He honored the memory of three people—his grandmother, his adoptive father, and one of his clients at La Alianza Hispana, who died in March. His work includes a painting of a yellow Crayola crayon in honor of the client, Ramona, who had dementia.

“Ramona could be observed most days at her table, coloring away with a yellow crayon—it was her favorite color,” Velasquez Higueros wrote in a story accompanying his design. “On most occasions, she would wander around La Alianza, demanding that she go home because she needed to cook for her family. Or she would often ask for her son Angelito, when she lost track of him. She returned to a state of calmness after she was reassured that he was only doing his nurse checks.”

The deadline to apply to the Spier Fellows in Aging program for the 2023-2024 academic year is June 30.