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School of Social Work offers gerontology-focused curriculum

Left to right: Area of Emphasis in Aging Scholars Kelly Alfini, Carol Ashwood and Anne McDonald.
Left to right: Area of Emphasis in Aging Scholars Kelly Alfini, Carol Ashwood and Anne McDonald.
Pauline Oo

When her grandmothers died within months of each other, Anne McDonald was determined to pursue a career related to geriatric care. Today, she is halfway through the two-year “Area of Emphasis in Aging” (AEA) program for graduate students at the School of Social Work, run jointly by St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas.

“I applied to the program mostly because I had to be a part of something that was going to help make a systemic change for geriatric populations,” McDonald explains. “When both my grandmothers were at a nursing home, and my maternal one ended up in hospice, I was not pleased with the way things were handled and how they were cared for.”

The School of Social Work introduced the AEA program in fall 2009. It gives Masters of Social Work (MSW) students the chance to increase their skills on and knowledge of aging issues through aging-specific courses, assignments, research and leadership opportunities.

The AEA students also receive a $1,000 stipend for completing their 600-hour clinical field placement in a setting that serves the elderly.

The AEA is funded by a grant from the John A. Hartford Foundation, via the Council of Social Work Education Gero-Ed Center. In 2009, the School of Social Work at St. Kate’s and St. Thomas was one of 16 educational centers nationwide to receive the grant, which called for the applicants to propose a specialized gerontology program or curriculum.

“Our school’s focus on aging is not new,” says Carol Kuechler, MSW program director. “I’ve been at St. Kate’s 15 years, and every year there is a group of students for whom gerontology is a real passion. The grant has just allowed us to refocus our efforts and the AEA program gives us a chance to highlight these students.”

The program taps into the school’s existing curriculum and faculty resources, explains Lisa Richardson, director of MSW Field Education and assistant professor of social work, “but we enhance the students’ learning with a series of activities, such as public presentations and clinical field placements, around the topic of aging.”

In November, McDonald and the five other AEA students in her cohort gave a presentation, known as a Professional Development Salon, at St. Kate’s Coeur de Catherine. The group performed a reader’s theatre (in which the students each read parts from a script) on nursing home staff.

On May 16, 2011, the students will publicly present findings from their MSW clinical research projects at St. Thomas. McDonald’s project is focused on cardiovascular disease and depression in older adults.

“[The AEA program] has definitely met my expectations,” she says. “I’ve learned more things about geriatric clients than I ever knew existed. And I think every social work student should at a very minimum take the elderly electives. You need to have experience with the whole life span, from birth to death, to be a well-versed clinician and to become more marketable.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60,000 to 70,000 geriatric social workers will be needed by 2020, yet less than 10 percent of that projected number is now available.

“As social workers, we have to be prepared to provide our services to the aging population,” Richardson says. “It will be the largest segment of our population. The onus is on us to fast-forward our skills to be able to be competent in serving the elderly and their families.”

More Info

For more information about the Area in Emphasis in Aging (AEA) program at the St. Kate’s/St. Thomas School of Social Work, call Lisa Richardson at 651-690-6825 or e-mail

Dec. 17, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Healthcare, Students