Professor Jung Kwak is an associate professor of Social Work here at UWM and teaches at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. She has a PhD in Aging Studies from the University of South Florida and a Master of Social Work degree from the University of South Carolina. The two main courses that she teaches are a class in Research Methods and a seminar in Death and Dying.
Dr. Kwak is leading a very important study here at UWM. This study is known as The Evaluation of the Music and Memory Program on Persons with Dementia. Dementia is a progressive neurocognitive disorder involving the deterioration of the parts of the brain that control memory and cognitive functioning. The disease leads to highly impaired social and occupational functioning as well as a loss of important memories about loved ones and events in their lives. The Music and Memory program is being implemented as a part of a statewide initiative that involves giving persons with dementia in nursing homes an iPod filled with their favorite songs from their past. By listening to their favorite tunes on iPod regularly, it is hypothesized that there may be improvement in mood and social skills as well as a reduction of anxiety and agitation. This study is one of the first rigorous studies on the potential effectiveness of this treatment.
I have been involved with this project since the summer. I feel very fortunate to work with other undergraduate research assistants for this great study. And I am especially fortunate to work with such an intelligent and dedicated professor. So it was great that she could take the time to talk about her career, her classes, gerontology, research, and the Music and Memory study.
How did you get involved with your subject and research?
I’ve always been interested in policy and research work. But when I was working on my Master of Social Work degree, I was considering different types of populations to work with. It was very clear to me that I wanted to concentrate on older adults because I’ve always enjoyed working with older adults and I have great respect for them. So it was an easy choice that I wanted to focus on older adults. My paternal grandmother had dementia in the last years of her life and my mother was a primary family caregiver. So seeing their experiences really got me interested in family caregiving issues around people with dementia and I also became interested in how families make decisions on the behalf of such older adults.
Do you have any role models?
One of my mentors from my graduate school is a role model for me because he is able to blend his policy work, research, administrative and leadership skills all into his career to develop and lead a large research center to facilitate students as well as faculty and staff to engage in important research work.
Describe your teaching style. What do you do to help students prepare for the assignments and help them to better learn the material?
I try to use a variety of activities so that it’s not just lecture. I try to find group activities, individual activities, or individual group discussion that involve student interaction with each other and me in the class. I also try to do field trips and bring in other guest lecturers whom students might not get a chance to meet unless they were in the class setting.
For example, in my seminar on Death and Dying this semester, we had a field trip to a funeral home. We were able to learn about the different roles of the funeral director and the meaning of ritual in terms of dealing with loss and grief. This Thursday, we will be traveling to a hospice facility. We also had guest speaker who were first responders and talked about their own experiences in terms of working with people at the end of life. We will also have a guest speaker come in to talk about organ donation. So I try to mix a variety of activities as well as speakers in the class to really bring in wider perspectives and experiences from the field.
What is essential for pursuing a career in research?
You need to find really good mentors who can guide you not only academically but also in terms of how to develop your own career path. It’s also really important to be involved with research early on by working with faculty members for research projects and writing projects because it gives you great hands-on experience.
One thing that I wish I had done better before I went to get my PhD is being involved with research earlier on either through my masters or even through undergrad. Having that exposure to research as early as possible in your academic path is really important. It really helps you to appreciate the opportunities and challenges in research and help you see if that’s the path you really want to take.
What are your favorite study tips?
Read. Read before the class and do a quick review immediately after the class. Reading before the class is crucial because it gives you general knowledge and background information about the topic. So it prepares you to be more sensitive to the material allowing you to retain it better. Often times, the instructor’s role is to highlight the key concepts and explain interrelated relationships between concepts and factors. Once the student comes with some general understanding of the material and engage in the lecture, their comprehension will be much better. And even if the student reviews for 5-10 minutes about the topics presented after class, then they will be better able to retain information and appreciate the subject better.
Why is education so important?
To become more engaged and more informed citizen in the community and the world. I think that education helps us to develop critical thinking skills. It also helps us to expand and broaden our mind, perspectives, and emotional experiences, and strengthen our ability to emphasize with others. So I believe that education is an essential for us to become better people.
How did you get involved with the Music and Memory study?
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services contacted the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare and asked us if we were interested in evaluating their statewide initiative. I am a gerontologist and we also have a strong methodologist working at our school, that’s one of the reasons that the state may have been interested in working with us. We wanted to participate in this project because it was such an exciting opportunity to understand non-pharmacological interventions and the effects it has on the quality of life for persons with dementia.
What are the challenges of conducting research on older adults?
I think that there are unique challenges with any population. If you do research with children, there are special challenges associated with that. If you do research on people with particular types of illnesses, there are special challenges associated with that. So I don’t think that there is any specific challenge associated with doing research on older adults per see.
However, doing research on persons with dementia can be somewhat challenging because they may not have the capacity to understand information that you are sharing with them. Often times you have to work with their family members to get their consent. Sometimes you also have to work with their direct care staff if the person with dementia is in a nursing home. So certain challenges in working with persons with dementia include communication challenges and working with many people representing different roles in caring for the person with dementia.
What do you hope to find from this study?
We want to know if the Music and Memory program is indeed effective in terms of reducing agitation levels, improving mood, improving social engagement, and reducing reliance on pharmacological treatments. We also want to find out how it improves the quality of life for residents if we find that there is improvement.
What do you find so interesting about gerontology and why should others study it?
It’s universal. Most of us have become lucky enough to experience old age. Our parents are getting older, our grandparents are getting older, and so aging is everywhere and is deeply personal. One day we will become older. It affects us, our family members, and our neighbors. It makes complete sense to study and better understand the aging process.
Aging is something that has many misconceptions and fear around it, but the best way to deal with it is to actually learn more about it so that we can be much better prepared for it. It’s true that as you get older, you will have a greater risk of frailty and illness, but not everyone has the same aging experience. There is a great diversity in aging experiences; there are many happy, healthy, productive, and engaged older adults everywhere. At the same time some older adults have illnesses, chronic conditions, and disabilities that we need to pay attention to provide better care. Our society is aging rapidly; there’s going to be a huge growth in terms of the number of older adults in our country and around the world. So we definitely need more experts and professionals who understand the aging experiences and who work well with older adults in the near future.
You can email Dr. Kwak via firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about her work and the classes she teaches.
For more information about the Music and Memory project, take a look at the links below:
Click here for a PDF detailing every aspect about the project.
Click here to find UWM’s front page story about the program (with yours truly in the pictures).
Click here for TMJ4’s news coverage of the project.
Click here for CBS 58’s news coverage of the project.
Finally, click here to see my review of Alive Inside, the award-winning documentary about the project. It’s a very informative and moving film and I highly recommend everyone to check it out.