If anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say: the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happiness be attained.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
During pre-orientation as an entering first-year student at Tufts, GDS alum Abigail Howell ’18 was randomly assigned to a service group working with elderly people at a daytime Boston health center. She dove into the work, offering companionship to older adults living with dementia. And something clicked for Abigail. As Roman philosopher Seneca said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
“GDS gave me the mindset to go into college looking for where I am needed and where I can make a change in the world,” Abigail said. “I came to school wanting to find a way I would be helping the world and others. I was inspired by the staff there and the ways they made the older adults feel comforted and safe.”
Abigail continued to work for the center through her first year at Tufts. When she came back to Washington, DC for the summer (and later to transfer to Georgetown University), she missed the meaningful work she had been doing with older adults. She began working on the memory care floor of the Sunrise Senior Living facility in Chevy Chase as well as with GDS neighbor organization Iona Senior Services. She also worked for a time as research assistant in the memory disorders program through the Georgetown University Medical School before recognizing that her passion lay in the emotional, human connections work with seniors rather than in the “hard sciences.” And yet, even as Abigail’s undergraduate journey is still unfolding, she just received a byline in a scholarly publication in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine on a research collaboration between UNC Chapel Hill and the Green House Project, a consortium of 300+ small house nursing homes across the country.
When the pandemic struck at the end of her sophomore year, Abigail felt especially motivated to help, despite the risks, and she began working as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. “I was really worried for the residents there,” she said. “I feel that this is a calling that I have—a calling I have to help. I thought, ‘I am healthy, and I have some help I can offer’ in a time that felt like there was very little that could be done.”
She ended up getting COVID and had to step away from her work where she had been providing much-needed companion care to isolated older adults. “It was so difficult for me to step away, but there was another lens that GDS offered me that allowed me to see so many structural issues in long-term care that were exacerbated by COVID.” The difficult experience actually sparked Abigail’s interest in doing research.
Although still an undergraduate, Abigail had already begun taking classes through Georgetown University’s Masters in Aging program. Upset that she could not work in person and “help these vulnerable populations,” she explained, she connected with Georgetown Professor Sonya Barsness who helped set her up in an internship working with Dr. Sheryl Zimmerman at UNC Chapel Hill on a joint study with the Green House Project.
The internship allowed her to be involved in the research project that tracked COVID incidence and mortality in both traditional medical-model nursing homes (NHs) and nontraditional small house homes that hosted eight to ten elders at a time in a homelife environment. Abigail was able to work on some of the literature review and write some of the content for the publication, which showed decreased rates of incidence and mortality for COVID in eldery people living in the nontraditional small house nursing homes.
“Although it is not immediately applicable, [the study] shows there is something to learn and provides some hope for where we can go in the future,” Abigail said. The authors, Abigail among them, wrote in conclusion, “Green House/small NHs are beneficial above and beyond the mere benefit of size, perhaps due to their private bedrooms and bathrooms, limited ancillary staff, and fewer admissions... the potential advantage of small size may be to psychosocial well-being. Families may be more able to have socially distanced outdoor visits, and having consistent, universal staff may allow for the maintenance of social relationships. Notably, residents in Green House homes receive significantly more hours per day of care from certified nursing assistants than do residents in traditional nursing homes... Small NHs are a promising model of care as NHs are reinvented post-COVID.”
Third grade teacher and High School running coach Anthony Belber has known Abigail all her life. “I always say that GDS students like to go out and make the world a better place, and Abigail is a good example of that,” he said. “She is most excited when she’s trying to bring positive energy to other people’s days. Her work with the elderly, again, is a perfect example of that. Abigail thrived on the running teams in HS especially because of the social aspects. Like my 3rd grade colleague Laura Howell [Abigail's mother], Abigail is truly attuned to the needs of others. At a time when it has been easy to get caught up in oneself, it’s exciting to watch Abigail put so much energy into the people around her.”
Abigail is currently providing companionship regularly with an elderly woman in Georgetown as she completes her finals at the end of her junior year. “After graduation, I want to pursue a PhD program [as a therapist for families and elderly people with dementia]. I feel so lucky to find something I’m passionate about and where that passion is needed. GDS set me up to be looking for that type of meaning in my life.”