Gifts help address need for eldercare workforce

As today's aging population continues to increase, so does the need for age-centered care, access to livable communities and other services. The growth rate for Virginians age 85 and older, for example, is five times faster than that of the state's total population.

"While still vibrant contributors to our communities, individuals in our 85-plus population are likely to experience multiple chronic conditions and find themselves in need of health professions-related services," said E. Ayn Welleford, Ph.D. (M.S. '93, Ph.D. '98), chair of the College of Health Professions' Department of Gerontology.

Through the Department of Gerontology and the School of Social Work, Virginia Commonwealth University is a key player in the state's efforts to meet the need for compassionate, knowledgeable and well-trained eldercare professionals. That's one of the reasons Patty and William Wilkerson created two scholarships to support students with a passion for gerontology.

As their mothers aged, the Wilkersons were faced with caregiving challenges and little knowledge of where to turn for help. Rachel Wilkerson, who graduated from the School of Social Work in 1939, developed Alzheimer's, and Mary Walters had Parkinson's disease and other age-related health complications.

"People don't think about aging until it affects them directly," Welleford said. "Longevity brings many opportunities, but the challenges of age-related diseases and caregiving often are first experienced in crisis. Gerontologists and aging services specialists can help meet these challenges through planning, care management and effective advocacy."

The Walters-Wilkerson Memorial Gerontology Scholarship in the VCU College of Health Professions honors the memories of their mothers and provides financial support to students who plan to serve the aging community. The Rachel Wilkerson Memorial Scholarship in Social Work supports students seeking both a Master of Social Work and a Certificate in Aging Studies from the Department of Gerontology.

Patty Wilkerson (B.S. '77) remembers social workers helping to navigate a challenging eldercare system while caring for her and her husband's loved ones.

"From administrators to nurses, all of these people had some training in gerontology and all of these people were completely wonderful. They have a kindness and a patience that my husband and I needed to honor," Wilkerson said.

As past president of the VCU Foundation, Wilkerson also wanted to give back to her alma mater and its programs that are designed to pave the way for healthy aging.

"The Wilkersons' generous gifts signal the importance of choosing aging as a field of practice. Their support and leadership encourages students to really focus their education upon working with older adults and their families," said School of Social Work Dean James E. Hinterlong. "Current estimates show that we're going to need 100,000 social workers with experience in the field of aging in the next five or six years."

The Rachel Wilkerson Memorial Scholarship in Social Work is an example of a long-standing collaborative effort between the School of Social Work and the College of Health Professions' Department of Gerontology. The joint certification program allows students to work in their chosen discipline as well as to serve older adults.

"We are grateful for Patty and William's generous support of our Department of Gerontology," said Cecil B. Drain, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions. "Thanks to their leadership, the department will continue to grow its efforts to transcend academic disciplines within the university and community. Their gifts enable future degree-seeking students of gerontology an even greater ability to focus on elder care and aging issues."

Welleford agrees. "For the Wilkersons to make a contribution in this way is really meaningful," she said. "They know from experience how important it is to prepare our workforce to help older people age optimally."

To learn more about the College of Health Professions' Department of Gerontology, contact Jessica Feinberg-Gurganus, assistant dean for development and external affairs, at (804) 828-3269 or To learn more about the School of Social Work, contact Myra Isaacs, director of development and alumni relations, at (804) 828-7166 or