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This High School Student is Making a Big Impact on the Field of Aging
posted 03.29.2016

For 5 days thousands of people came together at the Aging in America Conference to share their knowledge, passion for the field of aging and dedication to improving the quality of life for older adults. And while every session offered important and inspiring information, one poster presentation in particular caught our eye. 

The presenter, Abirami (Abi) Dandapani, is a high school student from Florida. She traveled to Washington DC for AiA16 to share her research, Adult Day Care Centers: A Community Assessment (PDF). We caught up with Abi during the conference and asked her a few questions about her goals, her conference experience, and what drew her to the field of aging at such a young age. Here's what she had to say...

Submit a Proposal to Present at the 2017 Aging in America Conference in Chicago,
March 20-24, 2017 

Deadline: June 15, 2016

First, how old are you, and in what sort of leadership organizations do you participate at your school?

I’m a 17-year-old junior at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Florida. Being one of the heads of Tiger Leadership, an organization within my school has taught me about scholarship, service, and leadership. Last summer, I had the privilege of attending Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) Leadership Conference, which helped me further my passion of community service and made me realize that I love to help people. HOBY motivated me to spread its leadership principles locally; I organized a local county-wide conference called “Community Leadership Workshop,” where I developed training modules for students on how to become academic and community leaders throughout their high school careers. Our group continues to do the same thing on a school-wide and community level even today.

How have you enjoyed your experience at the 2016 Aging in America Conference so far? What sessions or events have been your favorite and how did your poster presentation go?

The 2016 Aging in America Conference was incredible; it was a friendly and interesting environment where I was able to learn a great deal about issues that impact Americans today and will continue to impact them in the future. Though I’m young, I believe it’s vital that we connect the generational gap that divides us in order to sustain a better future, and the American Society on Aging does just that.

"Though I’m young, I believe it’s vital that we connect the generational gap that divides us in order to sustain a better future, and the American Society on Aging does just that."

Overall, the poster room was the highlight of my experience at the conference, and I was astounded by the variety of research and different initiatives going on in the aging community. With several studies to look at, as well as meaningful conversations with numerous engaging presenters, I was able to explore a myriad of topics and understand their importance in addition to spreading awareness about the issues that I came to present about.

Please describe to ASA members what first drew your attention to older adult issues.

My own grandfather had a degenerative disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, for years that left him unable to ambulate or communicate. We struggled to care for him at home until he passed away in January of 2015.  I saw my family, particularly my grandmother, going through the stress of caregiving. That was when I started researching other caregiving options for those with debilitating illnesses and really realized how important of an issue aging adults are in our society. I really wanted to make an impact on my community to help those going through the same thing my family did.

Were you involved in the study in Brevard County, Florida about caregiving and adult daycare centers? If so, in what role?

Yes, this project was my own independent study that I started for my Girl Scout Gold Award Project, but it became so much more. After developing a multifaceted questionnaire with the help of a geriatrician, neurologist, and director of a Brevard County-based adult daycare center, I personally disseminated this survey through multiple routes to gather a diverse survey basis. Speaking and presenting at a variety of conferences and local aging centers as a part of an awareness campaign, my goal was to spread both local and online awareness of issues surrounding dementia and adult daycare centers in our community. After about 6 months, I analyzed the survey data to draw conclusions about daycare centers and their needs concerning caregivers and the attendees of adult daycare centers and am here to present my findings at the Aging in America Conference.

Do you have personal experience with an older adult with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and if so, what were the toughest challenges for their caregivers?

Other than my grandfather having a rare form of dementia, I have been fortunate enough to not have any close people in my life suffer from it. Despite this, I have had various interactions with people who have dementia as well as their caregivers whilst volunteering at adult daycare centers, and I know that life is not easy for them. What I have seen actually correlates with my survey results: that physical caregiving difficulties, work obligations, and financial reasons were the biggest challenges that caregivers faced. I hope that my research will help people realize that adult daycare centers provide great benefits not only to the attendees but also to the caregivers.

"I hope that my research will help people realize that adult daycare centers provide great benefits not only to the attendees but also to the caregivers."

What do you think might be the greatest help for caregivers of someone with Alzheimer’s? How do adult day care centers fit into the overall care picture?

I believe that adult daycare centers are the greatest help that can be given to caregivers, and that they should be utilized more often. They relieve about 80% of caregivers’ physical, emotional, and social burdens. Moreover, they provide adults an opportunity to get out of the house and to receive mental/social stimulation, even therapy! The biggest obstacles that caregivers face in trying to send their loved ones to adult daycare centers are transportation to and from adult daycare centers as well as a lack of funds. Adult daycare centers are a viable and satisfying option for attendees and caregivers, and I think that adult daycare centers should be a much more popular resource for caregivers, especially to those caring for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Projecting into the future, what’s the biggest issue around older adults that you’d like to have a part in solving?

I hope to continue on with research in the future, but I am personally most interested in making care facilities available for a wider variety of people. Even pushing for construction of an adult daycare center in my county to allow more people to attend them would be a major step in providing for our current aging population. This is a major issue in today’s society and it needs attention, and I hope that I can spread that message.

"This is a major issue in today’s society and it needs attention, and I hope that I can spread that message."

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