By Vicki Marsh Kabat
When Laura Wilgus was 5 years old, her great-grandmother began to suffer from dementia. Laura's mother told the little girl, "Now grandma may have trouble remembering who you are." Unfazed, Laura says that every time they visited, she stood right in front of her great-grandmother and said, "Grandma, I'm Laura and I'm 5 and this is Jack (her brother) and he's 3."
Communicating easily with older persons is just one of the many gifts Laura (MSW 2009) possesses as she finishes her master's degree with a concentration in gerontology. She says she has known since fifth grade that her life's work would be with older people. She volunteered regularly at nursing homes throughout high school, and one summer was a caregiver for an elderly neighbor who lived down the street from their Dallas home.
"There's a huge gap, and as social workers, we need to go to where the people are --"
"There is so much potential in older adults. Their wisdom and life experiences are so fascinating to me," she said. "They have been through so much and seen so much. I want to hear all of that from them."
Laura, who also received her BSW from Baylor, spent her graduate internship as a congregational social worker at First Baptist Church, Woodway, working with senior adults. In high school, she had volunteered at her home church with the senior adult minister, and said the church setting is where she feels most comfortable.
"It's a wonderful place to reach senior adults because that's where they're comfortable going," she says. "For instance, they might not go out and find a psychologist to get counseling, but they would come to the church for counseling there."
Senior adults have access to social workers in hospitals and nursing homes, but if they're independent and still living alone, Laura says, they don't have that access. "There's a huge gap, and as social workers, we need to go to where the people are – churches and physician offices."
Nevertheless, most churches are not yet familiar with how a social worker can benefit their membership, and this was one of the things Laura addressed in her placement. She wrote a job description for the position, developed and facilitated new events and programming for senior adults, created new tools and documentation.
Her capstone presentation is based on a program she has developed and titled COAP (Children of Aging Parents). The monthly meeting at the church would serve as a support group and an educational opportunity for adult children caring for aging parents. "It would provide information on how to manage your parents' insurance and medical forms, banking transactions, how to access local services, meeting with nursing home administrators, and other practical matters," she says.
Laura also was one of the first participants in the GSI rotation of the three-year Hartford Foundation grant the School received in 2006. She rotated through nine practice sites serving the elderly in Central Texas. "It was amazing to see social work applied in all these different locations. It really gave me great experience," she says.