ST. JOSEPH — Spending time with and helping older adults has always been a passion for Theresa Uhrich.
“I love hearing their stories and learning from them,” she said in a recent phone interview.
So that makes her job as the care management director at the Region IV Area Agency on Aging, headquartered in St. Joseph, that much more exciting.
Uhrich, a licensed master social worker who has been with the agency for 12 years now, spearheads local collaborative efforts to support seniors who want to receive care in their own homes rather than nursing home care.
She also represents Southwest Michigan on regional and state efforts to ensure older adults have the supports and services they need to successfully age in the setting of their choice.
In response to the pandemic, she deployed her full team of nurses and social workers to remote service while increasing access to services and supports for over 700 older adults and younger people with disabilities who want to receive care in their own homes – rather than in a nursing home.
Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman spoke with Uhrich to learn about how she got into her career and what it entails.
How did you end up working with older adults?
I did both my undergrad and graduate schooling in social work. When you go to grad school you concentrate on a specific population. I had been around older adults my whole life because of the charity work my parents did. So when it came to choosing a concentration, it was a no-brainer for me to choose to work with older adults. The program also concentrated on people with disabilities.
While I was in school I learned about Area Agencies on Aging and made a beeline straight to work for one when I was done with school. I’m really privileged they brought me on. It’s an amazing group of people to work with and it’s cool to be somewhere where we share the same passion for the mission that we have.
What is a typical day like for you?
There really isn’t a typical day for me. One of the things I try to do at the end of each day is: I look at my calendar and try to think of what’s on the schedule for the next day. Then I try to get in the right headspace for it and how I want to approach it. There’s always meetings, and mine typically focus on program development at the agency and PQI (prevention quality indicators). But really it’s the work that happens between all of those. That’s a lot of consulting with my team, troubleshooting things and responding to questions. There’s never a dull day and they go fast.
How has the pandemic changed what you do, if at all?
For me, not much change at all, but for our staff, their typical day did change dramatically. Many of the people on my staff in particular, actually work in the community, they’re in people’s homes, nursing homes and in hospitals trying to help people get back home again. They have all been doing that work remotely, but we’re working on plans and protocols so that we can safely start to visit with people in person again and they’re very excited about that.
For the most part we’ve been trying to leverage technology in new ways and enhance what we already had that are successful. We’ve been able to come up with new ways to deal with problems created by the pandemic, like how we’re addressing food insecurity, social isolation and loneliness and home care support for vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities. We have also been able to continue to provide all of our regular services.
Do you have a project or thing that you’re most proud that you and you’ve done during this time?
The social worker in me doesn’t like to do any of the work alone, so I’m really lucky that I get to contribute to projects with our whole team. Whether during the pandemic, or “normal times,” you’ll always find us working together, supporting one another, being flexible in how we approach problems and challenges, and we really never miss a beat in rising to the serve the community. We’ve really succeeded in making that a routine, common place thing for us, and so I think that’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment. Not many people can say that.
Do you have a favorite part of your job?
That’s funny you ask that because this week we asked our staff something similar. What I really like, and what was stressed to me in my program when I was in social work education, is that a human service agency needs to be just that: an agency in service to humans.
I think our agency is 100 percent committed to not just the community, but really understands that the people that work for it are human beings too. We all have a really good, healthy work-life balance. We know in a real and meaningful way that our greatest asset is our people. I really like that, and I know our staff does too.
Then opposite of that, do you have any part of your job you maybe don’t like as much?
I don’t think there’s anything I dislike because I really love how varied by job is. Whether I’m working one-on-one with people, in a group with people, I’m working on things that are affecting our community on very big levels and in very micro ways. There are challenging days, but really that’s opportunity in disguise and I love a good opportunity.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
I, and my team, like to do the things that we work so hard to let other people to be able enjoy as they age. For me, that’s connecting with loved ones and getting out into my community. Really just enjoying life to the fullest.
Staying connected to my family is really important to me. I have bi-weekly sibling conference calls with my four siblings and not long ago I taught my grandma how to use Instagram.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or make sure that I include that I didn’t ask?
We have an info line (800-654-2810) where our experts can help people explore different ways to stay connected to their loves ones. There are lots of new technologies out there we can help them explore. We can also connect them to the AAA in their local community. We’re part of a national network, so that people can even help their older loved ones they’re not living near.