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Summer Research: Caroline Birdrow ’16 Community-Based Research with Maury River Home Care, Lexington, VA

“My service experiences allowed me to embrace my research with a more personal interest, and my research is making my service more informed and intentional.”

Briefly describe your community-based research (CBR) project.
Over the summer, I partnered on a CARA community-based research (CBR) project with Maury River Home Care (MRHC). MRHC is an organization that provides professional in-home care and services to the elderly in the Rockbridge area, but which is also increasingly interested in providing support to informal caregivers. The goal of my CBR project was to help MRHC figure out how to best support these informal caregivers, a growing need as our population ages. In addition to conducting a literature review on the needs and challenges of caregivers in general, I also designed and piloted a survey instrument that will be used to assess the particular needs and stressors of caregivers in the Rockbridge area.

What interested you about this project?
As a Bonner student, I have spent numerous hours serving in the local community. One of the first community partners with which I served is an assisted living facility in the Rockbridge area. Since I started visiting the home, I have come to know and care for many of the individuals who live there. They each have very unique, fun personalities, and getting to know them has been a pleasure! However, even though they always were glad to see me, some of them expressed that they were unhappy or generally not feeling well, which was upsetting to learn. Sometimes I left feeling that the residents were not experiencing the quality of life and care that they deserved. What I came to realize is that a positive atmosphere in such a facility is not always easy to maintain. The challenge of caring for the elderly who are in different stages of aging can create a strain on the employees of a facility who may not always be able to meet everyone’s needs in a timely manner. Over time I began to understand that the staff have stressors of their own inside and outside of the workplace. It was my interest in understanding how to better support caregivers and, in turn, the elderly that led me to investigate the needs and challenges of caregivers in this CBR.

Which faculty offered guidance and how did they enhance your CBR project?
Professor Julie Woodzicka and Professor Karla Murdock, although not official advisors for this CBR project, offered valuable advice as I developed an appropriate survey intended to assess the needs and challenges of caregivers. As they both are psychology professors and have devised similar instruments of their own, they helped me to think about and understand the nuances of putting together an effective survey. Many of these factors I had not considered before, and they helped me learn how language and structure affect the capturing of accurate and desired data. Additionally, Professor Howard Pickett worked with me on understanding ways of making a survey accessible to individuals of varying visual ability, something I also had not considered. Overall, these professors guided me throughout my project and allowed me to gain a deeper knowledge of what community-based research (CBR) entails.

While these professors offered invaluable advice, so too did my community partner, Laura Simspon. Ms. Simpson has an intimate knowledge of caregiving issues, in both professional and informal realms of caring for the elderly. She also works with caregivers every day and therefore knows them on a more personal level. Thus, my professors helped me devise a survey that would be academically sound, but Ms. Simpson guided me in putting together an instrument that would be well-received by and valuable to our community.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this project?
What I thought was most interesting is how emotionally taxing it can be for caregivers to watch their loved ones age and experience physical or personality changes. At the assisted living facility with which I worked, I mainly met individuals later in their lives or later in their illnesses. Thus, I forgot about what it must feel like to know someone before aging or the onset of illness and to witness their transformations.

What was your favorite part of creating this CBR project?
Talking about it with others. When I explained my project, listeners would share related personal stories or the experiences of their friends and relatives. This made me realize that my project was addressing an issue that everyone will face at some point. Theoretically, everyone ages, and everyone must develop a plan for their care for later years of life. Understanding this helped me see the importance of conducting research about caregivers and their relatives and friends.

In what ways do you think this CBR project allowed you to integrate your service and academic experience? How did one inform the other?
My service was the motivation for pursuing this project and gave me some idea of what potential stressors exist for professional caregivers such as low wages, insufficient training, and lack of workplace flexibility. My research, although focused on unpaid and informal caregivers, provided a larger context in which to view the lives of the residents and the staff members at the assisted living facility. The residents once may have had informal caregivers, and the staff members also may serve as unpaid caregivers in other aspects of their lives. In addition, my service experiences allowed me to embrace my research with a more personal interest, and my research is making my service more informed and intentional.

What impact do you think this CBR project will have in the community?
I think my project laid part of a foundation for conducting similar research in the Rockbridge area and, much further down the line, implementing new policies and long-term care models that will address the needs and challenges of caregivers and the elderly they serve. In many ways, my project helped to initiate conversation and thought about this particular issue, and hopefully others will take this many steps further.

Describe your experience in a single word.

This project was conducted under the umbrella of the Community-Academic Research Alliance (CARA). CARA supports community-based research (CBR) partnerships between Washington and Lee University students and faculty and non-profits in the Rockbridge area to address pressing community challenges.

Hometown: Gulfport, MS
Major: Mathematics
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies

Organization: W&L Community-Academic Research Alliance (CARA)
Location: Lexington, VA
Industry: Research