UGA student partners with local Council on Aging

In January 2020, Jessica Shotwell gave her first lesson at the Athens Community Council on Aging. Just two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about disruption and uncertainty, and Shotwell’s work became even more important.

A fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the College of Public Health, Shotwell describes herself as a people-person with a passion for helping others.

“I’m really interested in understanding how people make decisions around their health,” she said.

So when ACCA approached her in 2019 about developing a course for their Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, Shotwell couldn’t say no.

“I took literature and everything I had been learning from the community—Athens specifically—and put together a curriculum to help older and more vulnerable populations feel empowered and have more effective interactions with doctors and health care professionals.”

ACCA’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program offers tailored support to individuals raising children who are not their own, often unexpectedly. The 12-month program provides food and financial assistance as well as parental education courses, family events and support groups to kinship caregivers raising grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or nieces and nephews.

Supported by a Brookdale Foundation grant, Shotwell designed an original, seven-month course to be delivered through bimonthly lunch and learn sessions to ACCA program participants in Athens and Monroe.

“It was meant to serve as a tool that people can carry with them as they move through their health care interactions, to not feel as taken advantage of or uninformed.”

An Experience of Her Own

Shotwell knows firsthand how intimidating the health care system can be. As an undergraduate student at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, she sustained a serious shoulder injury that required multiple surgeries.

“I remember feeling overwhelmed, insecure, scared, and just very unsure of what was going on or what was needed,” she said.

She found that other college-aged athletes in similar situations felt the same way about their experiences.

“Moving through the health care system can be very overwhelming. It can hurt your mental health and also your physical health,” she said.

After completing her master’s degree in psychology at UGA, Shotwell turned her focus to public health. She reached out to physicians and clinicians in the Athens area to understand the challenges and needs of the communities they served.

“I started realizing how serious the issue of health communication can be for groups that are underrepresented,” she said. “We have a situation where there are older populations and people who have chronic conditions who are likely suffering a lot more because of poor communication, compared to younger, healthier students.”

Partnering with ACCA

Through its programs and partnerships, ACCA works to address issues like these. The nonprofit offers aging service programs in 27 counties throughout the state, engaging with more than 16,000 residents.

“ACCA is an incredible community partner and really does outstanding things for the aging community,” Shotwell said.

After modifying her program due to the pandemic, Shotwell’s work with ACCA and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren relaunched in the summer with virtual sessions and mailed resources for those who couldn’t access the classes online. Shotwell held her final meeting in October.

“I’ve had grandparents tell me they’re teaching this to their children, to their grandchildren, and when I hear that, I’m just like, ‘Yes!’ I want to demystify health care and equip people so they’re less likely to be bulldozed over by the system, and to hear that some of the things I’ve created have started to maybe tip that scale—that has been the most rewarding thing overall.”

– Hayley Major

Read the story at UGA Today.

Posted on December 18, 2020.