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Becoming and Being an Advocate

NCALL 20th Anniversary Blog Series
Katie Block

When you go to school for social work, there are two questions MSW candidates often ask each other. First, do you want to be a therapist? And, second, what population do you want to work with? The need to put each other in neat boxes notwithstanding, it was a constant reminder as we all worked through our training on how we wanted to focus our energy. For me, those answers were clear from the start, and would set me apart from most of my peers. No, I did not want to be a therapist (but hats off to that wonderful profession!). I was studying macro social work with a focus on community and policy. I firmly knew I wanted to work with older adults. And I was in a clear minority.

The fact that there were so few of us with even an interest in working with older adults fueled my drive to become an advocate. This lack of interest to me was a consequence of an ageist society where even those who are training to be supports, social justice advocates, and change-makers, had to be convinced that an entire population of people across all boundaries needed dedicated attention. It was an equity and access issue to me. Older adults have done exactly what society has asked of all us, they have lived long lives, and yet they are labeled invaluable, and disregarded across many disciplines and systems. I would see this when I accompanied my grandmother to a medical appointment and the physician would talk to me about her without ever thinking to ask her directly about her own health. I saw it as I provided Medicare counseling; helping people navigate a system that is designed for them but makes it devastatingly hard to navigate to the point that people cannot access the healthcare they need, or end up owing thousands because they were locked into the wrong plan. I saw it as I began working in victim advocacy, where court systems ignored the needs of older adults, prosecutors lacked training on how to work with the population and based decisions on ageist assumptions, and domestic violence support services had work to do to effectively support people over 50. With these things and more in mind, I set out to do something about it.   

It was through my schoolwork that I first learned of NCALL, and in fact used their resources, and Bonnie Brandl’s articles in many of my projects. In the years following, as I began my work supervising a victim advocacy program for older adults, I knew my team and I had a host of valuable resources from NCALL to tap into to help us become better advocates. During this time, I also saw several conference presentations by the NCALL team and was impressed with their approach in dealing with the complex issues related to abuse in later life. It was­ during one conference in Philadelphia, where I saw Bonnie presenting on the OVW Abuse in Later Life Grant Program and the use of a Coordinated Community Response that I knew I wanted to be a part of that work, in some way. It was the type of local level systems change that made sense to me, particularly for the Philadelphia community where so many systems were / are working next to each other rather than with each other when it comes to supporting older victims of crime, and in particular those with limited access.

Through my years working with older victims and survivors, a consistent theme was present. Systems were not set up to provide equitable and just access to supports or justice for older adults. Further, those living at the intersection of older age, race, sexuality, language, and disability often face larger hurdles and more complex stereotypes. They also may encounter a professional field that more often than not is untrained on navigating these complexities, and systems that outright ignore that they exist. So, when the opportunity arose to be part of the National Resource Center for Reaching Victims (NRC) at NCALL, a collaborative project focused on supporting professionals in increasing their capacity to identify, support and serve victims in the margins, I leapt at the chance.

To me, this is the direction the field of older adult advocacy and abuse in later life must go and I’m so pleased to be part of the team advancing this important work. In partnership with the NRC, NCALL is able to take an intersectional approach to develop new resources and engage in learning opportunities for professionals that foster meaningful dialogue about equity and access to healing and justice support to all victims, particularly those in the margins. It is through this lens that I believe communities can build on their capacity to serve all older victims, holistically, and in the way that makes the most sense for each community. This allows for communities to make the systems work for them (or create their own systems!), rather than trying to fit into spaces that were set up for others. I’m truly excited to be a part of this work alongside the NCALL team, and even more excited to see where the field goes from here.

To learn more about NCALL’s work with the NRC contact Katie at KBlock@ncall.us

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