Get to Know Me
…My name is Eliese Bjerke, and this fall I will be a senior at Messiah College located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania! I’m currently in the process of earning my Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development and Family Science and minor in Gerontology. Now you may be wondering what on earth is Gerontology? Have no fear, I will explain. Gerontology is a comprehensive, multidisciplinary study of the aging process as well as the difficulties that, at times, coincide with it. Courses generally encompass a combination of biology, psychology and sociology. Often times, Gerontology gets confused with geriatrics, but let me remind you, they are quite different. Geriatrics tend to hone in on medical conditions and diseases within aging, whereas Gerontology is the overarching umbrella looking at the multi-faceted aspects of aging.
Why I Love Gerontology
For a long time, I knew I wanted to help individuals and their families, but how and in what way was still undetermined. However, by the time my grandmother moved in with my family, I grew more and more intrigued by the aging process. I watched for years as my mother was her primary caregiver; administering and overseeing her medications, taking her to doctors’ appointments, bathing her and really just tending to her every need. Whatever my grandmother needed, my mother was present. When my grandmother’s health started to decline, the living arrangements became even more complicated; and after her first, second and third fall, changes were in order. I knew the changes were difficult on everyone. However, I was still acquiring an interest in how to be the best caregiver alongside my mother. By the time I entered my sophomore year of college, I knew I just had to get into this field of study. Gerontology was waiting for me. When my grandmother passed away last year, I felt as though the tables were turning. Now, it was my time to make others feel loved and cared for the way that I saw my mom nurture her mother. It’s truly inspiring. Realizing everyone deserves to be loved like family is a concept that I hold on to dearly; furthermore, understanding that you have the capability of promoting and maintaining quality of life and dignity for older adults just makes serving these individuals all the more rewarding.
From Messiah College to Messiah Lifeways
So first, how did I manage to get involved in this wonderful community? As I previously mentioned, I attend Messiah College, and this provides me with the opportunity to be involved in several courses that engage fully with my career aspirations such as Gerontology. This past semester, I completed the Sociology of Aging course and in this, we are required to fulfill an Experiential Learning Initiative (ELI). One ELI is required in order to graduate. This activity can take place in many shapes in forms. For instance, students can either earn their ELI through practicums or internships, service learning, off-campus programs, leadership opportunities and/or assisting with undergraduate research. This encourages students to engage in a meaningful guided process that will foster willingness to challenge one’s learning, and then transition to adequately applying and strategically integrating former knowledge of the experience in an authentic context.
All this to say, the Sociology of Aging course taught by Dr. Raeann Hamon was uniquely designed to make a way for students to actively engage with older adults and to develop a relationship with them over the course of the semester, which then may turn into a long-lasting connection. That was my first encounter with Messiah Lifeways. A student and I were presented with a couple that was situated in the residential level of care. Our time spent with the residents included: volunteering with transporting residents from physical therapy, assisting with a community garden, and then spending time interviewing each of the spouses individually about a major life event that they encountered, writing about it in creative manner, and then at the end of the semester presenting them with their story.
As cliché as this may sound, the moment I drove onto the campus of Messiah Lifeways, I was blown away. It exceeded my expectations tremendously. When I think of retirement or aging, my mind takes me back to when my grandmother used to live in a rehabilitation center or nursing home, and I think somewhat pessimistically. Yes, most of the places where my grandmother ended up were fairly nice, but it didn’t have the outspoken community atmosphere that I encountered when volunteering with the residents where everyone had a smile on their face and held an attitude that just seemed to say “I care for you.”
It’s All about Learning
If I’m being honest, beginning an internship sounded like the most terrifying experience in the world. I had finally gotten somewhere in life. I had an opportunity to showcase my education and my skill set. Over the span of my internship, there was a lot to be learned; such as, speaking professionally and with etiquette. You don’t speak to your supervisor the same way you speak to your friends and even your parents for that matter. I was able to be involved in a couple of networking events alongside the community liaison at Messiah Lifeways, which was also a valuable time for me to develop good listening and communication skills. Being a relatively shy person did present itself with some challenges, but as I’ve learned, it’s better to be bold than to hide in the shadows. How is anyone going to know who you are and what you have to offer if you don’t do so? My internship covered a vast amount of information that would take more than five pages of writing to summarize so I will try my absolute hardest to condense it as best as I can.
Over the course of my internship, I was able to meet the admissions coordinator, director of admissions, social workers from both enhanced living and nursing care, activity coordinators in residential, enhanced living (Personal Care) and nursing care, director of marketing, events coordinator, director of Adult Day at Messiah Lifeways, director of Mechanicsburg Place located in central Mechanicsburg as well as the pastors in the department of pastoral ministries, the director of wellness, the director of Messiah Lifeways At Home (Home Care), and many others. My experience was extremely heart felt. I sensed a lot of joy and pride in what each of the team members was extending to the community. More than that, working alongside a group of co-workers that were tightly knit as friends made coming in every morning something I looked forward to rather than nervous or fearful. The environment was kind and inviting… It’s nice to see how easily team members transition from their work to simply laughing together and getting to know one another better. Something else that added to that community feel was the simple statement of saying “hi” to a person passing by; it didn’t have to matter if you knew them or not, you just simply did it because you wanted to. As I’ve learned, who knows what another person is walking through, maybe a simple “hello” or “how are doing” is just what they need to brighten up their day. It’s so obvious to see the love in these people’s hearts, and that’s something that I will always admire about Messiah Lifeways.
A Word of Thanks
I first and foremost wanted to express my sincere gratitude to my supervisor Matthew Gallardo, the Director of Community Engagement and Coach as well as a Certified Retirement Options Coach at Messiah Lifeways. He has taught me what it truly means to be a servant of the Lord. Something that I found to be particularly neat and wonderful about his coaching position is that when it comes down to the heart of it, coaching is essentially helping individuals and their families navigate [all the many options and resources] for their loved one. There is nothing that can prevent someone from utilizing this service; it is free and caters to the general public despite their race, color, financial state, familial status, disability or national origin. Furthermore, he can make referrals to other CCRCs (Continuing Care Retirement Communities), nursing homes, assisted care living homes, etc. This job isn’t intended to persuade clients to move directly to Messiah Lifeways. It’s about what’s best for them and their family, whatever they may choose. Mr. Gallardo, thank you for your time and effort. Thank you for providing me with a wonderful educational experience that has helped me develop skills and connections for my future career.