On a Wednesday, I had the great privilege of accompanying Dr. Laura Shannonhouse and three of our wonderful lab members, Kiara Exum, Hannah Reed and Carly Skaar, to the Administration on Community Living (ACL) State Unit on Aging Conference to present some preliminary findings from our research. We shared some of the data that our lab members have been collecting through their interviews with older adults in the community. We presented information about the training and preparation we undergo during our weekly meetings, and our students shared a few personal stories detailing especially meaningful interactions during their interviews. There was laughter, and even a few tears shed. Afterward, we had the opportunity to connect with leaders in the field of aging from all over the southeast, program officers of the federal grants, and a number of other participants who commended us for our work. Finally, we took the opportunity to experience a Virtual Dementia Tour sponsored by Second Wind Dreams before walking back to campus from the Sam Nunn Federal Center.
Four years ago, if you had told me I’d be doing this, I might have laughed in your face.
My journey with Georgia State University began in the fall of 2015, as a woman in total disbelief that she was about to start working on her master’s degree. I had made the decision to listen to the gentle tapping – that small whisper in the back of my mind gently suggesting, “maybe you should be a counselor.” I had quit my job in video production and took a leap of faith back into academia. This decision was informed by several experiences, including the emotional toll of caregiving and loving persons with Alzheimer’s disease in my family. My dad specifically was a caregiver for the majority of my life and was currently caring for his sister, my Aunt Ellen.
Flash forward a year and a half, and I’m sitting in Dr. Laura Shannonhouse’s office, blinking again in disbelief as she suggested, “maybe you should consider getting a Ph.D. in counselor education.” My experience as a first-generation college student has had several moments like these – brows furrowed, wondering how in the world I could manage to get a Ph.D., and never imagining that the gentle nudge to “be a counselor” would take me this far.
A year after that, I found myself once again in her office (I spend a good bit of time there) – this time as a first-year doctoral student. We were having a vague conversation along the lines of, “maybe we should figure out a way to study the impact of ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) among older adults.”
Flash forward again several months (exactly one year ago), and we’re preparing to present to this conference – this time, with the hope of introducing the dream of an idea to a network. None of this would have been possible without mentorship from community partners and mentors who care deeply about the lives of older adults.
Our team spent the summer putting together a grant proposal, and now we are funded by the Administration on Community Living, sharing some preliminary findings to members of the aging network. I have the great honor of serving as the assistant director and co-investigator on the grant. Pinch me.
As if that was not a surreal enough moment, we had the opportunity to participate in a Virtual Dementia Tour for free. The Virtual Dementia Tour is an evidence-based method of providing a greater understanding through the use of sensory tools. In other words, for about 20 minutes, we were in a carefully-structured environment that simulates what it might be like to live with dementia. This tour was provided by Second Wind Dreams.
Admittedly, I was anxious to do this. I’ve had a front row seat to the impact of Alzheimer’s disease for as long as I can remember. My aunt died in the first year of my doctoral program, and for the first time in my life, my dad is no longer in an ongoing caregiving role (he also provided care for my grandfather and my great aunt). I was expecting to be emotionally upheaved by the tour – by the fear of what it feels like to have dementia and the frustration of not being able to complete basic tasks. The tour certainly did provide an emotionally eye-opening experience of dementia, but something happened that I was not expecting: during the tour, I found myself wrestling with the realization that when this is over, I can leave and return to a life without dementia. So I kept asking myself during the tour, “what is it that I need right now? What would help me?” As soon as the thought formed in my mind, I immediately recalled one of the last memories I have of my aunt – of my dad sitting with her quietly, putting lotion on her hands and holding them, bringing her a sweet tea with a straw, and telling her he loved her. I was floored by the reminder that my aunt was (and is) loved, that my dad and the team of wonderful folks where she lived provided the best possible care for her, and at that moment, I needed someone to do what my dad did for my aunt– I needed someone to gently hold my hand and remind me of my love and worth.
I was not expecting such a powerful experience when I prepared for the conference earlier that morning. But then again, I don’t think I could have fully prepared for anything that has happened in the last four years — and yet it’s only the beginning.