by Kirsten Rohde
Taylene Watson, LICSW, ACSW, is Director of Social Work at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System (VAPSHCS) in Seattle and a new member of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) Education Core We are honored to have Ms. Watson join us as we work to increase awareness about research, particularly in the African-American community.
It is easy to recognize Ms. Watson’s commitment to the profession of social work and to working with the family caregivers of ill veterans in particular. Ms. Watson currently oversees the professional practice of about 140 social workers in the VA at Seattle and American Lake. She has worked in the VA system since 1971, addressing the social work needs of veterans in the areas of psychiatry, mental health, community residential care, medicine, surgery, primary care, and geriatric care. She also holds an appointment at the University of Washington (UW) as Clinical Associate Professor, and as part of her work there, she coordinates a training programs for social work interns. In recognition of this work, the VA Social Work Department received an Outstanding Practicum Agency for the UW School of Social Work award. Among many other honors, Ms. Watson received the National VA Social Worker of the Year award in 2006.
When speaking of her years of work as a social worker, Ms. Watson describes her growing interest and concern for caregivers, “My professional passion for caregiving began when I realized how important it was to support caregivers. In 1982, I worked with veterans with PTSD in Minneapolis, and we ran a support group for the wives and family members of these veterans. Then, in 1985, I began working in the geriatric clinic and primary care clinic at the Seattle VA; I worked with many veterans who were dealing with dementia or other illnesses. As I worked there, I realized how critical the caregivers were to maintaining the veterans’ independence. At the same time, I was the personal caregiver for my mom. I took care of her for about thirty years, and during the last three to four years she began to show severe signs of dementia.”
Because of these experiences, in 1988, Ms. Watson and a colleague decided to create a caregivers conference at the VA. They put the conference together “on a shoestring” budget and had about eighty attendees, including family caregivers of veterans and medical center staff who were caregivers. This year, they will be holding the twenty-first year of the caregiver conference at the Seattle VA and the eighth year of the conference at the American Lake VA.
Ms. Watson believes that the importance of caregivers to patients is starting to catch on across the country, “I think the nation is starting to pay attention to the need to provide support and resources for caregivers,” she says. “For example, there are now legislative proposals to increase the number of days of respite to which a caregiver is entitled. In my own case, I was able to provide a paid caregiver for my mom, so I could go to work. Yet I still got up early every day to give her a bath and make her breakfast before getting ready myself to go to work. It was important to me to make things OK for her. Many caregivers don’t have the resources or don’t know about ways to get help to do all that is needed. And being a personal caregiver just increased my knowledge about how people must cope with an illness like dementia. I’m amazed at what caregivers do and how they do it. But I know that some caregivers delay getting the help they need, and I know they even put off attending to their own medical needs while they provide care 24/7.”
This year, Ms. Watson will join the ADRC team to assist us in our outreach to the African-American community. She will serve on the ADRC Minority Advisory Board, which will provide advice, guidance, and liaison services as we work to increase awareness of research opportunities. “I’m very excited that the ADRC is reaching out and that they asked me to be a part of this effort,” she says. “I was lucky as a family caregiver because due to my professional experience I knew about resources and the advances in research. I think there are a lot of folks in the community who are just not aware of what is available. Culturally you just do it—you take care of your family, and you often do so without help, because it’s just the right thing to do. I think the good thing about the new ADRC grant and the creation of this advisory board is that it will help spread the word to the minority community that there are additional sources of information and support.”
It’s easy to see that Ms. Watson will be a strong advocate for the role of social work on this outreach project. She speaks highly of the many ways that social workers can help increase awareness. She is this region’s Point of Contact for the national Veterans Caregivers Advisory Committee and has just been elected president of the Washington State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She explains that “social work involvement in the community outreach project of the ADRC is critical. The social work staff at the VA has grown tremendously over the years. Social workers can now provide a wide scope of services, and we always bring the reminder that for every individual living with dementia there is a ‘family’ providing care and support, and this family may in turn need our help and support.”
We are very excited to have such an energetic advocate working with us in the ADRC. Ms. Watson will be joined on the ADRC Minority Advisory Board by Patricia Hunter (Chair), Clifford Holland, Lemanual “Lee” Jones, and Rowena Rye. We are honored by the commitment of these leaders to enable the African American community to participate fully in Alzheimer’s disease research. As we were concluding our conversation, Ms Watson added, “I know I will retire some day, but I doubt I will ever lose the passion for helping people and their need to navigate difficult systems.”