Preparing for the Silver Tsunami

Preparing for the Silver Tsunami

St. Kate’s strives to close gaps in communication and health equity — and in the job market — with two new graduate programs.
By Mary Pattock ’66

A century ago, we might have expected to live to 54. Today we’re looking at 80 — the happy result of improved sanitation, housing, education and healthcare.

Our increased longevity, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, means people over 65 will comprise fully 20 percent of the population by 2030. Will there be enough healthcare providers to care for them? And how will we make those added years worth living?

True to its leadership mission of meeting the needs of the time, St. Kate’s is preparing students in numerous disciplines to meet the needs of the “silver tsunami” — and in ways that focus on the strengths, not just the disabilities, of older people.

In classes from social work to nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy and even interior design, students learn that, as psychologist Erik Erickson maintained, our later years are a time of wisdom and creativity, a time to review and integrate the rich experiences of a long life.


When occupational therapy associate professor Catherine Sullivan says, “Age is in the mind,” she’s not indulging in wishful thinking. She’s talking science — about damage caused by the destructive stereotype of aging as primarily a time of loss. “The problem with that stereotype is people internalize it, and impose limits on their activities. The less they do, the less they are able to do.”

One of her goals is to dispel that stereotype among students, so they can better help people build on their strengths and remain active and independent as long as possible.

For example, she pairs undergraduate students with elder mentors and has them journal about the experience, helping them develop understanding and empathy for an age group decades removed from their own. Graduate students assess homes for safety to prevent falls and other injuries so people can stay in them longer. A community partner, Rebuilding Together Twin Cities, implements their recommendations.
This spring, students staged a CarFit event to help older drivers make their cars “fit” their specific needs.

In partnership with another community organization, KairosAlive!, students researched how the arts can benefit health. Frail elderly people in a dance program became more physically capable when they were not merely asked to “raise your arms,” but invited to “reach for the stars.” They made gains in balance, memory, creativity; they experienced joy and fulfillment. In storytelling sessions, participants invested their experiences with renewed meaning and relevance to the community.

“St. Kate’s has a long-standing record of contributing to vital aging,” says Lisa Richardson, associate professor in the School of Social Work, a joint program of St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas. The school has used grants and collaborations to build a gerontology focus into the curriculum. One grant from the Council on Social Work Education helped launch an elective gerontology course. They used a John A. Hartford Foundation grant to create a master’s-level “Area of Emphasis in Aging,” which has since become a model in military and immigration social work practice.

This year the school became one of only 10 in the nation to win inclusion in the Social Work HEALS program, a five-year grant that gives scholarships to two baccalaureate and two master’s students in healthcare social work. The award, sponsored by the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers, also involves the University in an information- and resource-sharing consortium with the other participating universities.


A surprising entry in the field of gerontology is interior design. Justin Wilwerding, director of St. Kate’s recently launched undergraduate program, explains that 15 to 20 years ago, the field embarked on a radical shift away from “making things pretty” to being an evidence-based practice.

It’s a direction his department has embraced. “In every class we try to suss out whether the design improves the life, health and welfare of the user,” he says. “We’re not HGTV anymore.”

Last year, several students designed wellness centers to minimize barriers and support the strengths of older residents. They based their designs not on current trends, but on research they conducted on how elements such as flooring, fabric and furniture would affect the health and well being of specific types of residents in a specific facility.

Stephanie Olson ’15, now an account coordinator at an upscale Minneapolis office-furniture dealership, cites some of the issues students address. They learn to recommend anti-microbial fabrics to prevent spread of communicable diseases, non-glare floors to accommodate residents with cataracts or glaucoma, and hallways with frequent resting places. They learn that abstract paintings can frighten residents suffering from dementia, and seemingly endless circular walkways without mini-destinations can be confusing.

“I learned to take myself out of the equation, and put myself in the mindset of the people I’m designing for,” says Karli Johnson ’15, an intern at the same firm. She believes St. Kate’s empathic focus on user needs is part of “what sets us apart” from graduates of other programs.


It may well be that the humane heart of healthcare at St. Kate’s beats most strongly at Carondelet Village. It’s the older-adult residence that started as Bethany, the retirement home of St. Kate’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

In partnership with the University, Carondelet Village is the site for a learning experience that turns the provider-patient model inside out, explains Rebecca McGill, assistant dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. Residents volunteer to be “elder teachers” — full participants at the center of student teams whose semester-long project it is to improve the residents’ lives by leveraging their strengths. Teams include students from several disciplines and levels, says Suzan Ulrich, assistant dean of graduate nursing, including students from the nursing associate program, many of whom will assume leadership roles in long-term-care facilities.

Some of the elder teachers are the same accomplished women who inspired St. Kate’s alumnae in the classroom. As David Luedtke, associate professor of nutrition and exercise science, points out, they are perfectly comfortable speaking their minds, declaring their needs and pitching in to get things done.

Call it the CSJ effect: it doesn’t take long for them to help students develop a new respect for aging and recognize the potential that waits on the other side of barriers that the team can help overcome. Along the way, students — from nursing, OT, PT, physician assistant, holistic health, exercise science, social work and spiritual direction — learn to be leaders in modern interdisciplinary healthcare teams.

The CSJ effect manifests itself in another way, too — in an enduring concern for social justice. Alongside optimistic trajectories for aging boomers, says Sullivan, there runs “a darker healthcare path.” It’s the one traveled by people who don’t have access to basic resources.

She cites a project in which students worked with residents of a poor Minneapolis neighborhood. Students found that it isn’t for lack of health information that some residents don’t go for walks — they can’t afford comfortable-enough shoes. They may not garden for fear of random bullets. They buy groceries that are cheap instead of healthy. Students who began the project thinking they’d provide solutions to the residents came away saying, “They were teaching us.” Epidemics of poverty-driven diseases such as obesity and diabetes, Sullivan says, make such social justice lessons increasingly relevant to public health.

Professionalism, patient-centered care, respectful collaboration, attention to social justice, confidence — these are leadership contributions St. Kate’s alumnae are making to healthcare for the elderly. Luedtke makes the point by quoting a Twin Cities hospital intake worker: “We have several nurses who were trained at St. Kate’s and they’re wonderful. They just think they’re supposed to be leaders. It’s not that they’re uppity — they just do such a good job and they get involved because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do.’’ “Wow,” says Luedtke, “you can’t have a better tribute than that.”


Photo by Jennifer Simonson / Minnesota Public Radio News. © 2012 Minnesota Public Radio. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Photo by Jennifer Simonson / Minnesota Public Radio News. © 2012 Minnesota Public Radio. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Professor Catherine Sullivan (left) and Geraldine Thompson look for a place to attach the HandyBar handle during a CarFit clinic.


Master of Arts in Occupational Therapy

Interior Design at St. Kate's


Pauline Oo
MAOL Cert ’14, MBA '16

Class Notes Editor
Sara Berhow

Art Director
Carol Evans-Smith

Molly Orth
Joey Blanchard

Production Assistants
Kara DeMarie MLIS '16
Kayla Forbes MBA '17

Director of Visual Communications
Jayne Stauffer

Director of Marketing and Communications
Kristin Kalstad Cummings '91

Vice President for External Relations
Bea Abdallah

Mary Pattock '66, Ruth Haag Brombach '60
651.690.6831 | 800.945.4599