Profiles in Social Work
Helping Terminally Ill Elderly,
Teaching Social Workers about Aging
Dr. Tracy Schroepfer, MA, MSW, PhD
After receiving her MA in Gerontology from the University
of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1989, Tracy Schroepfer,
MA, MSW, PhD, began teaching research and statistics
and gerontology to social workers. "Once I started
teaching, I knew that was what I wanted to do,"
she says. "I love teaching." However, her
experiences in the classroom raised concerns about the
future of geriatric social work. "I had social
workers in my classes who had little experience in aging,"
she notes. "I was concerned that as the aging population
grew, there weren't going to be enough skilled practitioners
to care for the elderly."
Dr. Schroepfer decided to earn an MSW and a PhD, which
would enable her to both care for older adults and teach
future social workers. After continuing in her teaching
position at the University of Arkansas for several years
while her son finished high school, Dr. Schroepfer enrolled
in an MSW and double-PhD program in social work and
sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
At the University of Michigan, Dr. Schroepfer became
involved in a number of research projects, including
investigating how to control aggressive behavior in
nursing home patients with dementia and exploring the
caregiving issues that older couples face. She also
developed a personal interest in issues surrounding
death and dying. This stemmed from experiences with
deaths among family and friends as well as encounters
with death and dying as a nursing home volunteer.
This interest in end-of-life care led Dr. Schroepfer
to a position as a medical social worker for an Ann
Arbor hospice. In her work with dying persons and their
families, she noticed that the issue of who should have
control over the dying process kept recurring. After
reviewing the literature and talking to practitioners,
Dr. Schroepfer wrote a book chapter entitled "Facilitating
Perceived Control in the Dying Process." The chapter
discusses ways in which caregivers can reduce stress
for terminally ill elders by increasing their sense
of control over the dying process, including giving
them opportunities to participate in decision-making
about their care, estate planning, and funeral arrangements.
This paper led directly to Dr. Schroepfer's choice
of topic for her Hartford-supported dissertation, entitled
"Terminally Ill Elders Speak Out about Their Consideration
to Hasten Death." Curious to explore what factors--including
perceived control--lead terminally ill elders to seek
a hastened death, Dr. Schroepfer interviewed 96 terminally
ill older adults She found that 19% were considering
hastening their deaths. Those with poor social support
or who felt they had little control over their fatigue
levels were more likely to consider a hastened death.
Neither pain intensity nor perceived control over pain
were significant factors in attitudes toward death.
Dr. Schroepfer believes these findings have important
implications for end-of-life policy, care, and research.
"Currently the focus is on relieving pain,"
she points out. "This is important, of course,
but my study found that psychosocial issues seem to
be what is really important. I feel that palliative
care programs need to take a more holistic approach."
Dr. Schroepfer credits the Hartford Doctoral Fellowship
with speeding the progress of her studies. "The
Fellowship allowed me to quit several jobs I was holding
and to concentrate on finishing my dissertation,"
she says. "I can't say enough about the program.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to
me." Dr. Schroepfer particularly appreciates the
crucial information the program provided on career development
issues, such as interviewing, networking, and publishing.
Now finished with her doctorate, Dr. Schroepfer intends
to continue her research on the dying process in her
new role as Assistant Professor of Social Work at the
University of Wisconsin. She plans to continue studying
terminally ill elders' attitudes toward a hastened death
and measure how and why those attitudes change from
week to week. She also hopes to further explore the
topics she researched during her doctoral studies, including
issues with dementia and caregiving, as well as an earlier
interest in homeless elderly. She will also have ample
opportunity to reconnect with her first love: teaching.
"I hope that by teaching I can encourage more social
workers to go into aging," she says. "I want
to raise their level of enthusiasm, to show them that
aging can be a challenging and rewarding field."
Here for a complete list of Profiles in Social Work
Updated on November 18, 2010