The School of Social Work’s GRACE program increases students’ knowledge of and experiences with geriatric social work through educational events and field placements in agencies that serve primarily older adults. For the past two years, and thanks to extra funding from the St. David’s Foundation, GRACE students have also attended the Aging in America conference. This multidisciplinary conference gathers professionals from across the nation to network and learn about aging and quality of life for older adults.

We talked with master’s student Shoko Morikawa about her experience with the GRACE program and the 2016 Aging in America conference, which was held March 20-24 in Washington, D.C. (watch a short video about the GRACE contingent at the conference). Morikawa is graduating this May and plans to move to San Francisco and work with older adults.

How did you become interested in geriatric social work?
Shoko Morikawa
Shoko Morikawa

I actually started the master’s program thinking that I wanted to work with children and youth, as my background is in child and family studies. I also knew that I was definitely interested in working with LGBTQ people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and/or questioning individuals/identities), from my experience as an online crisis counselor for LGBTQ youth with The Trevor Project.

And then in my first year, I was in the cohort of professor Sarah Swords, who coordinates the GRACE program. By mid-year I think, she told me that she thought I would be good working with older adults. I remember saying, “I don’t think so.” I entered the school wanting to empower LGBTQ youth, and nobody could convince me otherwise!

But Sarah was very persuasive. I did my first field placement at a middle school, and I didn’t enjoy the work that much. So Sarah insisted that I try something different for my second field experience. And I ended up choosing and being accepted at Austin Lakes Hospital, which is an acute inpatient psychiatric hospital. I worked specifically with the older adult population there through their Senior Adult Program. I learned so much, and through this experience I surprised myself seeing how comfortable I felt and how much I enjoyed working with older adults.

Why do you think older adults were not on your radar as a population to work with?

I was an LGBTQ youth, so I know what LGBTQ youth experiences are and I can relate to them in a mentor role – it’s like, I’ve been there and now I want to give back.

But with older adults, I didn’t have that connection. I didn’t have the experience of spending time with older adults either. My grandparents are in Japan, so I didn’t grow up having them around. Also, because of my educational background, I intensely studied child development – Vygotsky, Piaget, and so on – but I was pretty ignorant about human development in the later half of the human years.

And more generally, it seems to me that we don’t think, or don’t want to think, about what life will be like when we are older. I’m probably one of those people who find that very scary to think about, so I just put it off. It’s like this existential unknown, everyone goes through it, we all age, but it’s kind of terrifying to think about it.

Was there an aha moment that made you switch from youth to older adults as your population of interest?

Well, it almost seems like fate. As GRACE students, we have to attend educational events focusing on geriatric social work, and the first one I attended was a seminar on aging and LGBTQ issues! That was kind of an aha moment, as I learned about aging from an LGBTQ perspective, which I’m really interested in.

I learned so much in that seminar, most importantly that older adults are at the highest risk within the LGBTQ community, and they need the most empowerment. They grew up in a society where there was no Trevor project, when the DSM still classified homosexuality as a mental illness, marriage was obviously out of the question, and there was so much social rejection and social isolation that came with the LGBTQ identity. LGBTQ older adults today tend not to have been married, live alone, and may be because they were rejected by their families or decided to isolate themselves from their families they don’t have caregivers. They have a higher chance of suicide, and by having grown up in a society where it was so shameful to be LGBTQ, they might have other mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

I think most of my aha moments happened with GRACE seminars, and realizing there was so much to learn about geriatric social work.

What was your experience at the Aging in America conference?

I was really excited when I looked at the conference booklet and saw that every day there were several LGBTQ-specific presentations. I felt that this was validating. I was able to gain more knowledge about what the field of aging looks like, and about the many professionals from different disciplines that are working to empower older adults.

For instance, I’m interested in the performing arts, and I was able to attend a workshop about using theater for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a creative and therapeutic way to work with them and let them share their stories and have a community building experience. They tell their story while being filmed, or write it down, to create a script that collects all stories. Then they get on the stage in front of people in the community, and they read their stories aloud. It’s a very empowering experience for them and a learning experience for the audience.

The conference was also great to network. I’m planning to move to San Francisco after I graduate, and was able to connect with people and organizations in the field of aging there, like SAGE, an empowering network for LGBTQ older adults.

I was expecting this much, and I got so much more out of the experience! I realize now that when I entered the master’s program I had a pretty narrow understanding of my career options. Through the GRACE program, my experience at Austin Lakes Hospital, and the conference I feel like my options have really expanded, and I’m very excited about it.

Posted May 13, 2016. By Andrea Campetella. Photos by Shoko Morikawa.