Full-Circle Experience at the State Unit on Aging Conference

This was originally published on May 14, 2019, on the GSU H.O.P.E. lab blog. Check it out!

Full-circle experience at ACL State Unit on Aging Conference

On Wednesday, I had the great privilege of accompanying Dr. Laura Shannonhouse and three of our wonderful lab members, Kiara ExumHannah 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.

CPS HOPE group at the conferenceMy 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.

one week down

*clears throat*

Hello? Is anyone there?

I’ve missed you.  Though I promised to write more in 2015, I have neglected my wonderful little corner of the Internet that is my blog. The hiatus was good. But I’m back feeling incredibly inspired to write and share what’s going on in my life. So get comfortable. Go make yourself a cup of tea or coffee or any beverage of choice. Grab your dog if you have one, snuggle up, and allow me to steal a few moments of your day with my words and ramblings. I hope you enjoy them.

This past Monday, I began the adventure of pursuing my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Georgia State University. Actually, I take that back — I began my adventure of pursing my Master’s degree last Saturday, in the middle of a heavily-wooded section of metro Atlanta, dangling by a string on a high ropes course.

I have expected this course of study to be life-changing. I figured I have been well-groomed for it: in the past year, I took the trip of a lifetime to New Zealand and took part in some serious soul-searching. I quit a good-paying job that made me unhappy. I stepped out of my comfort zone — predictability, stability, routine — and relied on the Providence of God to lead me where I am today. (And let me tell you: if you like routine and control and stability as much as me, this was not a walk in the park). But in the midst of my fears and doubts, I was — and still am– continually astounded by how well my needs were met; when I decided to pursue a career as a counselor, I felt as though every obstacle that could hinder my progress was obliterated. I felt like the path ahead of me was well lit and clear; all I had to do was walk.

What I did not expect in this life-changing course of study was how quickly I would deal with some of my worst fears.

Fun Fact: I’m afraid of heights when I don’t feel secure. I feel safe on a rollercoaster, but not on a Ferris Wheel. I’ve been trying to make sense of it myself for years. 

As it turns out, I do not feel very safe in a harness dangling from a wire while 4 or 5 stories above solid ground.

But this was the beginning of my graduate school journey. I spent the day getting to know my fellow cohort and professors in the context of a ropes course. Communication, trust, and camaraderie were established quickly.  And through their encouragement and my own personal will power, rendered from the depths of my soul and not without some real fear and anxiety, I finished the high ropes — complete with two zip lines to the ground that turned out to be AWESOME. I’ll zip line all day long.

On the first day of class, I didn’t walk in to strange faces. I felt an immediate bond with the people around me.  I’m so grateful to be learning alongside such wonderful people — people who will be my professional colleagues and friends.

My classes are interesting, challenging and wonderful. My professors are brilliant, and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from them.

A few people in the program have told me the first semester is an emotional upheaval — and I experienced a taste of that on Thursday in one of my classes. During our very first lecture, I was moved to tears by the candor and encouragement of my professor.

This semester, I will learn how to become a helper.
I will immerse myself in techniques and skills.
I will discuss, in depth, some of my worst fears — like losing the people I love.
I will learn how the human body can heal after unspeakable pain and tragedy.
I will read more than I’ve ever read before.  

And I will never be the same.