Kayla Hugate ’20 wouldn’t know what it’s like to work at the University of Lynchburg’s Beard Center on Aging during “normal” times. A student in the Master of Public Health program, Hugate started her job as the center’s graduate assistant just last semester, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She oversees student workers, serves as director Denise Scruggs’s “right-hand person,” and manages a variety of projects from start to finish.
“Obviously, COVID-19 has restricted a lot of what we can do,” Hugate said.
The usual large-scale conferences and health fairs the center hosts were canceled, and as for so many organizations, community outreach looked different in 2020. Scruggs had to limit the number of students working in her office. She’s also paused internship supervision for programs at Liberty and VCU, and the 30 to 50 speaking engagements and professional training programs her center provides annually had to be canceled or postponed, too.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for us, as it has for our community partners serving older adults,” said Scruggs, who has been with the center since 2007. “We have been unable to engage and assist many older adults.”
Nursing major Shadaya Cooper ’22, who has worked with Scruggs for three years, sees a big difference, too. “COVID has greatly changed the way we operate, both within the office and with the elderly population in the community,” she said. “Our events look different, as we are not able to have the large in-person events we are used to.
“Much of what we do [has transitioned] to an online platform. This presents its own problems when working with a target population that may not have access to the resources or the knowledge of how to use them effectively.”
But that doesn’t mean all outreach stopped. The annual “Be a Santa to a Senior” gift drive before Christmas still happened, albeit with more safety precautions in place. And instead of hosting hundreds of older adults on campus for its health fair, the Beard Center decided to coordinate a massive mask drive.
In November and December, Hugate, Scruggs, and their team distributed more than 2,200 masks they’d collected to older adults in Lynchburg and surrounding counties.
“We worked with local health departments, the area agency on aging, social services, the board of Second Stage [in Amherst], faith communities, Lake Christian Ministries, and the Blue Ridge Food Bank to distribute masks,” Scruggs said. “It was a campuswide and community-wide effort.”
Dubbed “Operation Lifesaver,” the mask drive kept dozens on campus busy all semester as they made, donated, collected, and distributed masks.
“Support from faculty, students, staff, sports teams, and the Office of Community Engagement was heartwarming,” Scruggs said.
External partners like Old Navy, Anthem Healthkeepers Plus and LACIL Disability Services, as well as Westminster Canterbury, the Adult Care Center of Central Virginia, Centra Hospice, and Centra Community Health Services donated masks, helped pay for materials to make masks, and assisted in distributing them to the community.
“This obviously had never been done before by the center, so it served as our way of adapting to the world around us to overcome the challenges that life was throwing at us and everyone else,” Hugate said.
The masks included educational information on the COVID-19 pandemic and the flu, as well as a handwritten card to “let them know they are not alone,” said biology major and history minor Jessica Lachowicz ’21, who is in her fourth year with the Beard Center.
Education is central to the center’s mission, and it’s not limited to the local or regional community. Over the past year, Scruggs and her staff continued to answer countless emails and requests from all over the country through the Genworth Aging and Caregiving Resource Center.
“Everything the Beard Center does is for the betterment of the community around us,” Hugate said. “All of the events we plan, the programs we develop, and the resources we give out all have the primary purpose to serve others.
“Although we are located in Lynchburg, we strive to make a difference beyond our community as well so that everyone can feel our impact and benefit.”
And the students are getting a lot back in return, particularly this past year. It’s one of the bright spots during a year filled with Zoom calls and online conferences.
“We have involved our students in national conversations about diversity, health equity, and aging offered remotely,” Scruggs said. “We would not have been able to provide it otherwise.”
There’s another positive for students. Because of COVID-19, the Beard Center this year offered geriatric rotations for nursing students who could not be placed in local nursing homes or hospitals. It’s worked out so well Scruggs is making a permanent change.
“From now on, we will continue to be a part of the nursing program’s geriatric care rotation,” Scruggs said.
She’s gotten good at making things work and making the most of them, but she’s also ready to get back to what the Beard Center is known for. The first event Scruggs canceled in March of last year was the annual Faithful Aging Conference, which is part of an ongoing outreach initiative. Several years ago, the Beard Center co-founded the statewide Faithful Aging initiative with Pinnacle Living to educate faith communities and faith leaders about aging and community resources for older adults.
“The initiative encourages the involvement of older adults in faith efforts to provide a sense of purpose in their lives, which we know increases longevity and quality of life,” Scruggs said. “Our ultimate goal is to prevent older adults and their caregivers from falling between the gaps in services.”
Another one of the center’s flagship events is the 50+ Regional Health Fair: Passport to Healthy Aging. The center partners with the College of Health Sciences, its Consortium on Aging, and Lynchburg, Bedford, and Campbell County Parks and Recreation to draw more than 300 participants annually. There’s also a statewide conference on aging every other year.
Most events involve the center’s Consortium on Aging, which consists of regional health care providers, foundation representatives, government agencies, nonprofit and for-profit agencies, and community members.
“This consortium, which we provide leadership for, works together to promote positive aging, address older citizens’ needs, and increase the visibility of resources for older adults,” Scruggs said.
And Beard Center staff learn all the time how valuable those resources are. Health promotion major Melissa Alsop ’23, who helps Scruggs with research, says working at the Center has opened her eyes.
“It has helped me realize what issues are out there in the health care field when it concerns older adults because I plan on going into medicine,” Alsop said. “Personally I am now more aware of the concerns seniors face.”
“Gerontology is a newer and underrepresented field because people think that getting old and dying is just a part of life, but there are so many changes, milestones, celebrations, and reflections that occur along the pathway,” she said.
While in-person events are on hold for now, the Beard Center team is busy planning a regional Aging in Place Expo for the spring of 2022. They’ve also partnered with communication studies and nonprofit leadership professor Dr. Jimmy Roux on his nonprofit, Cycling Without Age.
What’s not on hold, though, is getting her students the experience they need to succeed beyond Lynchburg.
“I feel as if I’m more prepared for my future because I’m being exposed to so many more aspects of how I can help the community around me,” said Hugate, who plans to work as a physician assistant.
“I have always thought that I lacked confidence at times, but working for a boss that trusts me, and working with students that trust me, I am able to be more confident in myself to help my personal growth.”
Cooper says it was the perfect place to get started because of her interest in geriatric nursing.
“A large part of nursing is health promotion and disease prevention, and the Beard Center provided me with the knowledge and resources needed to keep my patients safer and healthier.”
It’s a common theme. Lachowicz says she’s been able to apply what she learned at the Beard Center in her work as a CNA and home health aide in Lynchburg and the surrounding community. Scruggs, she added, gave her ample opportunity to engage with the community and strengthen her health care background.
“Through my work at the Beard Center, I have learned the importance of how to properly care for older adults, especially those with dementia or other related diseases,” Lachowicz said.
Lachowicz says she’s now more certain than ever about her plan to become a physician assistant.
“The Beard Center has significantly impacted my life,” Lachowicz said. “Working for the Beard Center has allowed me to push myself and my knowledge further than I ever thought possible. It has helped solidify my future career path.”