Students focus on supporting older adults during practicums

Aaron Troy and Elizabeth Alpert

May 27, 2020 – Two master of public health students at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health helped improve conditions for older adults and their family caregivers in Massachusetts during practicums that began last fall at the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA).

Aaron Troy, MPH ’20, worked on projects aimed at connecting older adults with new technologies and supporting family caregivers. Elizabeth Alpert, MPH ’21, focused on cataloguing the behavioral health resources available for older adults across the Commonwealth.

For the technology project, Troy helped organize a tech and innovation workgroup for employees of EOEA-contracted Massachusetts nonprofits that serve older adults and caregivers. Going forward, the workgroup will meet with representatives of technology startups to learn about the diverse array of software and hardware products available to help caregivers and older adults coordinate day-to-day activities, share information and connect online, build technology expertise, navigate complex institutions, and improve quality of life.

Troy’s other major project involved advocating for the inclusion of a caregiver needs assessment in the Massachusetts version of the nationwide Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey. Data from such an assessment could inform policy to help alleviate the unique burdens that caregivers face, Troy said.

A medical student focusing on internal medicine and cardiology, Troy decided to earn an MPH at Harvard Chan School because he plans to work at the intersection of clinical medicine and health policy. He knew he needed “a robust knowledge base and real facility with hard policy skills in order to support the communities I want to as a physician,” he said. “I gained both of those things from my coursework, and putting it into practice daily in the Office of Elder Affairs really cemented it.”

Alpert’s work at the EOEA focused on mapping out the state-level behavioral health resources available for older adults. Working across several state agencies, including the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Public Health, she also helped develop accessible ways to communicate information about the resources to a variety of audiences, including caregivers and staff at councils on aging and senior centers.

Alpert is a caregiver herself, helping care for an older family member with significant health issues. She’s also a dentist who worked with older adult populations in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities during her residency, which prompted her interest not just in oral health but in the broader area of health care and social services for older adults. “I saw systemic problems across these settings and wanted to get a different perspective, to learn about these areas from a nonclinical point of view,” she said. The desire to focus on the bigger picture, and to learn about how research is translated into effective policy, led her to Harvard Chan School.

Troy and Alpert both expressed gratitude for the mentorship of Kathryn Downes, EOEA’s director of policy, who oversaw their practicums and made them feel welcome, including them at the agency as if they were permanent staff.

While the students were completing their practicums this spring, they—like the rest of the EOEA staff—faced unexpected changes to their work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since the disease disproportionally affects older adults. “Aaron and I both tried to adapt and participate in projects other than our own to increase the staff’s capacity to deal with COVID,” said Alpert. “It was heartening to see how every day Elder Affairs staff continued to redouble their efforts and create new processes and streamline old ones to support people facing COVID-19,” Troy said.

Added Alpert, “I was impressed with how genuinely invested the Elder Affairs staff all are in the mission, and how integrated the agency has been in the COVID response. It was a great opportunity to get a window into effective state government.”

Jan Reiss

Photos courtesy Aaron Troy and Elizabeth Alpert