Can older workers fix a lack of social services for the elderly?

September 12, 2017
elderly people

From left: Peter Robertson, Jamiko Bell, LaVonna Lewis and María Aranda

By Vincent Lim

Four years ago, Jamiko Bell DPPD ’17 was a doctoral student in the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development program who was still searching for an ideal topic for her dissertation.

Then she attended a symposium hosted by the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute of Aging at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, which gave her an idea.

“I explored many research topics and none of them seemed to fit for me,” said Bell, a planner and supervising program specialist at the Riverside County Office of Aging.

The symposium brought together aging services professionals from nonprofit and governmental organizations in the Southern California area and many ideas were discussed including ways to address the funding cuts to aging services and the increasing U.S. older adult population.

At the conference, she met María P. Aranda, an associate professor and senior scientist at the school’s USC Roybal Institute on Aging who suggested that she use her agency as a case study.

“Dr. Aranda helped me walk through where I could make the connection between the theory and the practice,” Bell said.

Helping Older Adults Help Themselves

For her dissertation, Bell developed a pilot community service worker program for Riverside County that would train and employ older adults to work on the front lines of social service delivery and assist professionals with programs and services that need additional support.

The consensus among the professionals at the symposium was that the political climate made it unlikely that lost funding would be restored any time soon, while the older adult population would continue to grow. It was suggested that community service workers or “promotoras” could assist with service delivery. These trained workers would assist with service delivery by conducting outreach and basic health and program eligibility assessments of people in their neighborhoods.

“The goal of my dissertation was to determine how to use these lay professionals,” Bell said.

The Older Adult Community Service Worker Program proposed in her research outlines the most effective way to train and employ older adults to partner with aging service professionals by analyzing and evaluating the best practices and outcomes from similar programs across the United States and Latin America.

“Research about the use of community service workers to support service delivery for older populations is limited,” Bell said. “There is a fair amount of research about promotoras, but there isn’t much of a focus on older adults. There are many opportunities to use community service workers to help us do our work as professionals.”

As well as helping aging service organizations, workforce programs can be beneficial and meaningful for the older adults who participate in them.

“Self-determination, having a sense that you can help yourself and others, is critical for the well-being of older adults,” Aranda said. “Working as a promotora and being of service to others in the community can support mental and physical health as you age.”

The USC Price Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development is an interdisciplinary program that offers established professionals in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors with an academic experience that can enhance their leadership capabilities, extend their knowledge of policy, administration, planning and development, and empower them in designing frameworks and strategies for sophisticated problem solving.

“She has years of experience in the field of aging and a deep understanding of how organizations function,” Aranda said. “I’m always impressed by aging services professionals like Jamiko who are motivated to advance their education in a way that will help them better serve their community.”

The chair of Bell’s dissertation committee was Peter Robertson, an associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. LaVonna Lewis, teaching professor and the director of diversity and inclusion initiatives at USC Price, also served on the committee along with Aranda.

“My project shows one way a community service worker program could serve older adults,” Bell said. “There are probably other creative ways to integrate older adults into our work that will allow them to help themselves and others.”