Thanks to a grant from the St. David’s Foundation, a group of master’s students in the School of Social Work’s GRACE program were able to attend the 2015 Aging in America Conference in Washington, DC.

GRACE students and professor Sarah Swords at the Age in America conference
GRACE students and professor Sarah Swords at the Age in America conference

“This conference provided an unparalleled opportunity for our master’s students to learn about aging issues from experts in the field, network with professionals from all areas of aging services, and envision themselves contributing to the field in the future,” said clinical assistant professor Sarah Swords, who coordinates the GRACE program.  “As emerging social work professionals, they will soon be the ones leading the way! I felt proud witnessing the students reaching out and achieving their educational goals for this trip.”

Three of the students in the group, Nadia Velasquez, Maija Gutekunst and Katrina Kelly, echoed Swords’ impressions.

“Attending the Aging in America conference was an enlightening and invigorating experience. I was exposed to a variety of issues faced by older adults, taught interviewing and assessment tools, and had the opportunity to interact with professionals from all over the country,” Velasquez said.

“Every day was filled with learning, networking, thought provoking discussions and a place where I could expand my scope of knowledge in a field I am so passionate about,” Gutekunst added.

“When I began my clinical adventure about 10 years ago, I swore that I would never work with the geriatric population,” Kelly said. “Well, much has changed since then, and the field of gerontology has grown so much. Attending the conference helped me to finalize my decision to work with older adults after I graduate.”

Students also shared their excitement about the wide variety of subjects they learned about.

Kristyn Bojorquez said that she had found the sessions on sexuality and intimacy in the aging community particularly interesting, as she has been previously unaware of the relevance of this issue among older adults.

“I am grateful to have been part of this experience, and I am even more enthusiastic about pursuing a career and making and impact in the field of aging,” she added.

For Alexander McArthur, the conference illuminated the unique challenges and struggles of the LGBTQ communities.

“Many LGBTQ older adults are aging alone, are less likely than their straight counterparts to have children as an extra support, and have been going back in the closet and hiding their identities due to different negative stigma and stereotypes within the different medical settings,” McArthur explained.

Alicia Cruz and Maya Conlon-Kremer loved learning about emerging interventions for older adults that incorporate creativity, intergenerational activities, expressive arts, and mindfulness.

“Hearing practitioners from around the country describe their programs inspired me to think about how these interventions can be adapted and applied to meet the unique needs of seniors living in Austin,” Conlon -Kremer said.

“For instance, we learned about the PALETTE Program, which is designed to build intergenerational relationships with older adults and undergraduate students through collaborative art projects. The final results were beautiful, and it was clear that this intervention was beneficial to everyone involved,” Cruz added. “The conference was definitely the highlight of my first year in the master’s program at the UT School of Social Work!”

The conference also offered GRACE students opportunities for active participation. Heidi Hegemann, for example, was part of an intergenerational conversation about women’s issues on aging. Conference participants also visited an LGBT-friendly senior housing community and met with the employees and residents, which many GRACE students found truly inspiring.

Finally, Cindy Eschiliman synthesized the impact this conference had on her thus:

“The entire conference shook my perceptions of age and asked to question my stereotypes and assumptions, so that I can better assess and care for the individual clients I work with at Hospice Austin. Life is not really about aging, it’s about living. And this conference helped change the conversation by disrupting preconceptions about aging we all  have.”

Posted April 20, 2015. Featured photo credit: “My lovely grandmother,” by Michiel S. Creative Commons.