For the first time, the social work program at Northern Kentucky University offers a gerontology class that focused on real-world projects with local seniors in the northern Kentucky area.  

rising hope for aging Photo provided by Dr. Suk-hee Kim

“We aim to prepare our social work students for future professional careers that will allow them to enhance the health and well-being of the aging population and their families…”

By Jayna Morris
NKU Marketing + Communications

Dr. Suk-hee Kim is always thinking of new and different ways to engage with the Northern Kentucky University community.

Kim, an assistant professor of social work in the Department of Counseling, Social Work and Leadership, recently led a class focused on gerontology—the very first of its kind in NKU’s history. The class is the second phase of the Rising Hope for Aging Project—a fundraiser hosted through Impact NKU during the spring semester of the 2015-16 academic year.

Undergraduate and graduate social work students spent last semester getting to know residents at The Golden Tower, a low-income housing unit located in Covington for seniors typically 65 years and older, which is one of NKU’s Nurse Advocacy Center for the Underserved (NACU) partner sites.

Kim, who spent much of her childhood with her grandparents, has always felt a connection to older adults—especially those at The Golden Tower.

“Growing up closely with my grandparents greatly influenced my values. I have a deep respect for them and for older adults in general,” Kim says. “I met so many brokenhearted people with health problems and life obstacles, including people with disabilities and histories of substance abuse. I heard about their lack of family, community connection, and the support that they need. I knew that they needed so much support to meet their basic unmet needs and help to increase their quality of life. Most people understand hope as wishful thinking. I believe hope keeps us alive and helps us laugh more and care for and trust one another. My students and I knew now was the time to give our people hope.”

With this in mind, Kim built the gerontology class from scratch. She worked closely with students to introduce them to the growing field and discuss the impact on aging individuals in the northern Kentucky area. Students made weekly visits to residents at The Golden Tower throughout the entire semester.

More than 70,000 social workers with expertise in aging will be needed to serve the older adult population by 2020, according to The National Institute on Aging.

“Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the population both in the United States and around the world,” Kim says. “As social work educators and gerontology leaders, we aim to prepare our social work students for future professional careers that will allow them to enhance the health and well-being of the aging population and their families.”

Chris Bradburn, director of resident services at the Housing Authority of Covington, says the visits from Kim’s class helped support the residents in a way the facility can’t normally provide.  

“We get very little grant funding to serve our elderly residents,” Bradburn says. “Most of our funding for resident support is targeted to education, employment, and career advancement initiatives. As you can imagine, our seniors are not always interested in going to college, getting a job, or starting a new career. But they have many needs. The NKU gerontology class sought to address those needs. We have seen truly remarkable and positive changes in our residents at Golden Tower. Residents are friendlier, more upbeat, are more likely to socialize with each other, and the incidence of harassment and bullying that had formerly been commonplace has declined.”

The Impact NKU campaign raised nearly $1,200 for Kim’s students to develop the facility’s first resident library, help with enrichment activities, provide support groups and professional sign language services, invite guest speakers, provide musical instruments, donate meals and other numerous items, and provide medical equipment like portable wheelchairs and Winnie Wagon shopping carts. They also provided TANK bus passes.

Allura Eckert, program coordinator of elderly services at the Housing Authority of Covington, thinks the visits from NKU students made a significant and positive impact on the residents.

“It was heartwarming to see seniors that don’t normally join in activities come out and socialize, sing, play games, laugh, learn, and discuss issues affecting seniors,” Eckhart says. “The attendance for the Rising Hope for the Aging events was some of the highest we’ve seen.”

In addition, students were able to gain real-world experience and learn about the problems the aging community faces, Kim says. Brittany Hudson, a junior social work major, agrees.

“Being a part of the Rising Hope for the Aging Project has shown me that the aging population is a major part of our community and often times their life experiences are taken for granted,” Brittany says.