Profiles in Social Work
Serendipty and the Power of a Summer Job
Marie Savundranayagam, Ph.D
What attracted you to the field of aging?
Serendipity! It was a summer job that ignited my passion for older adults. In April 1997, an initiative called “Partners for a Better Future for Toronto” was interviewing university students for summer positions in a wide array of local social service agencies that served people of all ages. I was matched with an agency called the Second Mile Club of Toronto, Canada that served older adults. My primary role was to conduct a community needs assessment and in that process, with a social worker, I walked through many culturally distinct neighborhoods in downtown Toronto to identify existing resources and gaps. One of the best parts of the position was my time at one of the satellite adult-day programs for frail older adults. It was there that I got to know and interact with the remarkable older participants and creative staff. The experience was like no other because at the end of each day, I felt both fulfilled and a sense of purpose. It was easy to look beyond the physical frailty of the older adults and get a glimpse into their life history and relish in their great sense of humor! The older adults that I encountered that summer gave me an invaluable gift – a desire to pursue a career in gerontology. Once my summer position ended and I returned to my third year of undergraduate education at McMaster University, I used every writing opportunity in my courses to learn about mental health and aging.
The Gift of Mentorship
While the older adults in the adult-day center gave me the desire to pursue a career in gerontology, it was the guidance of my undergraduate thesis advisor, Dr. Ellen Ryan, that gave me my foundational research skills. Dr. Ryan introduced me to the concept of personhood as it relates to the care of persons with dementia, a topic I examined in my undergraduate thesis. She was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue a PhD in gerontology at the University of Kansas under the mentorship of Dr. Mary Lee Hummert. I was fortunate to receive excellent interdisciplinary training in gerontology and thoroughly enjoyed being part of Dr. Hummert’s remarkably talented research team. It was there that I began to develop my research agenda on caregiving, communication, and dementia, which would not have been possible without the guidance of Dr. Rhonda Montgomery. What I thought was a simple meeting about my research question regarding communication and caregiver burden developed into a working relationship of collaboration with Dr. Montgomery. Those experiences set me on the path toward becoming a Hartford Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholar in 2006, shortly after I joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Without Dr. Montgomery’s gentle, yet firm ‘encouragement’, I would not have even applied for the grant!
How has the GSWI benefited your career?
Being part of the Faculty Scholars program offered a unique learning environment that allowed me to become part of a web of scholarly support. I have enjoyed and benefited from the mentorship I received and the connections I made with other social work scholars. The Faculty scholars program also gave me the opportunity to conduct a study on the impact of a psychoeducational program on caregiving spouses of persons with chronic illnesses. Having this grant has undoubtedly helped me get a New Investigator Research Grant from the Alzheimer’s Association in addition to a Research Growth Initiative grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
What are your career goals?
My goals are to conduct research that has an impact on “how we care” for older adults and their caregivers and to encourage students to pursue a career in the ever-changing field of gerontology. In at least one point in our lives, we might be called upon to care for a family member or friend or we might be recipients of someone else’s care. As caregivers, it’s critical that we know how to provide the best care while maintaining balance in other aspects of our lives As care receivers, it’s imperative that we maintain our sense of self and dignity while advocating for our needs and those of others in a similar situation.
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November 18, 2010