Tucked inside a hallway at Goodman Hall, Mary Guerriero Austrom, PhD, sits in her office. Corners of her desk are stacked with journals and papers interspersed with family photos and saved receipts. This undoubtedly reflects her two biggest dedications: improving dementia caregiver education and being a mother to her five children. As she sits in her chair, wrapped up in a large shawl, Austrom reaches into her bag for what looks like an unfinished piece of art: two knitting needles and a ball of purple knitting yarn. That ball of yarn will soon become a baby blanket in the signature color of the Alzheimer’s Association to be auctioned off at one of their fundraising events to support research.
As a professor of clinical psychology in clinical psychiatry, Austrom plays an influential role in improving dementia caregiver education on local, national and international levels. From her efforts in Alzheimer’s disease education to improving diversity in research, it is clear that she is not only knitting yarn, but is helping stitch together a community, its resources and caregivers.
How has your family life played a role in the work you do?
One of my kids has special needs and this has not only shaped some of my interventions for caregivers but has also increased my empathy for all caregivers. Learning to support my child and focus on her strengths, has taught me how to help other caregivers focus on their family member’s strengths and functions that remain not on the deficits and challenges as a function of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
Why did you get involved in diversity affairs and why does it matter?
As an immigrant myself, I have a real empathy for the “other.” I know what it means to come from poverty; to move with my family in search of a better life; I understand the strength it takes to be the first one in the family to graduate from high school, university and graduate school. Having these unique experiences has allowed me to appreciate the struggle that many immigrants go through. It also provided me with the realization of why it is so crucial to have diversity reflected in the work we do and in those we work with. From developing pipeline programs for students from underrepresented groups, to creating supportive spaces where our women leaders can thrive–for instance, in the Department of Psychiatry, we now have an Annual Women in Psychiatry Grand Rounds, an annual seminar devoted to improving the department’s understanding of its women leaders and the role women psychiatry residents can have at IU School of Medicine. The hallway is now flooded with portraits of countless women experts in the field who’ve dedicated their lives to psychiatry and engaging more diversity that is reflected in those doing and participating in research. Together it creates a foundation where all can flourish and feel welcome.
Why is caregiving such an important area of education?
Over the course of my career, it’s become clear to me that caregiving, its challenges and rewards, impacts many patients and families regardless of diagnosis. Many diseases leave individuals in need of care and support. For example, a person with terminal cancer or end stage renal disease may need round-the-clock support; however, unless this cancer affects the brain or the person is in a coma, they have the ability to express their wishes, their gratitude, the pain they may be experiencing and they can remember their families and history. A dementia diagnosis is unique in the fact that, as the disease progress, it robs the person of their ability to communicate their needs and, as some point, they are unlikely to remember their own family caregiver. It’s crucial for the caregiver to take care of themselves first, because if the caregiver gets ill we wind up with, not one, but two patients. However, many caregivers struggle with asking for help or taking time for themselves. By providing caregivers with the proper tools to guide them in tackling difficult situations, easing burdens and reducing burnout, you can help both them and the person with dementia manage care at home longer.
How have you seen Alzheimer’s research grow?
Well, I’ve been at IU School of Medicine since the late 80s. In the past few decades, it’s been rewarding to see the education and research here in Alzheimer’s disease grow substantially along with significantly increased NIH funding. I’ve also seen the subject of caregiving evolve from a topic few knew about to a growing area of research and care where countless resources now exist at IU School of Medicine and local community. From the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Indiana and Cicoa, Indiana’s largest area agency on aging, to the National Institutes of Health—so many opportunities exist now for caregivers and their family members with dementia. It is a great honor to be part of this supportive community.
Mary Guerriero Austrom, PhD, is the Wesley P. Martin professor of Alzheimer’s disease education and a professor of clinical psychology in clinical psychiatry at IU School of Medicine. In addition, she leads the outreach and recruitment core at the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center and is the associate dean of diversity affairs. Learn more about IU School of Medicine’s expertise in Alzheimer’s disease research and education.