Upon his death in 1992, Henry Ravazzin, son of Italian immigrants, World War II veteran and Catholic Relief Services worker, left a sizeable bequest to Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) to be used for “the welfare of elderly persons.” The bequest led to the 1996 creation of the Ravazzin Center For Social Work Research In Aging, which has been honoring its benefactor’s wish ever since.
“Our mission is to increase social workers’ capacities to deal effectively with the needs of older people and their families, and to help communities meet the needs of an aging society,” said Irene Gutheil, D.S.W., Henry C. Ravazzin Professor of Gerontology and founding director of the Ravazzin Center. “Our nation is just not producing enough gerontologically trained social workers and we are facing a crisis of not having a workforce prepared to meet that need.”
By the year 2030, people age 60 and older will make up 25 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, Gutheil said, finding enough people to service the elderboom is more than a social work issue; it is a “societal problem across the board.”
Growing old in a youth-oriented society, she said, can be doubly devastating. Elders feel less valued in a culture where they are not viewed as being a vital and productive part of society, despite having wisdom and experience. Additionally, younger people may not grasp the value in working with older adults, or may feel ambivalence.
“It is difficult for some people to confront their own mortality, and that’s a large part of what working with older adults is—looking into one’s future,” Gutheil said.
The center’s research addresses major social work issues in the field of aging, including end-of-life issues, the challenges of minority elders and elderly health care research. Through a grant from the John A. Hartford Foundation and the Council on Social Work Education, the center is working to increase aging content in the GSS curriculum with a special emphasis on substance abuse in elders. “Substance abuse among older adults is a phenomenon that is under the radar in communities and in curriculum,” Gutheil said.
Another key initiative, headed by the center’s associate director Janna Heyman, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, is the Joining Elders with Early Learners (JEWEL) program. JEWEL is conducting a two-year evaluation of the Intergenerational Community of Mount Kisco, N.Y., an innovative center that mixes elders and children as young as six months in a nurturing environment, commonly known as a share site.
A few times each week Heyman and Linda White-Ryan, JEWEL’s director of evaluation, visit the Mount Kisco community and conduct interviews to chart the effects of age mixing upon its old and young participants.
“It is a place where elders can hold the babies, or play certain games with the children,” Heyman said. “So far, our evaluation shows that the emotional joy the elders feel makes them want to come to the site.”
Heyman and her staff measure how the children’s attitudes toward older adults compare with children who attend a child-only day care facility. They also measure the outcomes of specific activities—dancing, board games, gardening, theater and others—among the elders and the children, to see what is most effective.
“We can do data analysis to show what programs increase the level of interaction,” White-Ryan said.
One of the Ravazzin Center’s strengths, Gutheil said, is its experience in needs assessment for older populations, which can help programs document and evaluate their successes and failures.
“Our center tries to help community agencies understand the importance of program evaluation,” Gutheil said. “It really does make a difference when they can provide prospective funders with evidence that their program can, and has, achieved certain outcomes.”
In addition to research and evaluation, the center acts as an umbrella group for GSS faculty working with the aged, and funds graduate students with a special interest in the field of aging through its Andrus Scholars program. Thus far, the center has helped to graduate 21 students.
“You don’t find as many social work students interested in aging as [you do]in a field like children and family services,” Gutheil said, “but our intent is to slowly but surely increase interest among social work students to serve older people and their families. The future reality is that no matter what social service area you choose, there are going to be elders involved.”