Once in a lifetime learning experience in Kerala, India
Part of the reason I applied to the University of Maryland School of Social Work for my graduate studies was because I learned from their website that they had amazing study abroad opportunities. One course in particular caught my eye, “Interprofessional Exploration of Aging, Health, and Mental Health in Kerala, India. India had always been on my bucket list and I thought this would be an interesting and exciting opportunity.
Once I received my acceptance letter to participate in this class, I immediately started to memorize as many Malayalam words as I could possibly remember. However, when I arrived in Kerala, India I instantly became overwhelmed with the beauty and culture and I had no words to describe what I was experiencing. Then I met the people of Kerala, and the words started to flow from me. I would greet the elderly with my hands clasped together, bow in respect and say “Namaskaram” (hello).
The purpose of our trip was to attend a Healthy Ageing and Mental Health conference hosted by Rajagiri College of Social Sciences. There, a multi-disciplined group of Social Work, Nursing and Public Health students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, learned about evidence-based models used in geriatric mental health settings. Speakers from India and all over the world participated, including distinguished professors from Australia, England, Slovakia, France, South Africa, and the United States.
Some of the evidence-based practice models presented during the conference focused on religion, others on autonomy and quality of life. The most popular theme within the Indian culture, however, was the positive effects of the traditional family support system. This theme — family support in healthy ageing — resonated with me throughout the trip.
We learned about multi-generational households, women’s roles in the workplace, the affects of colonization, and systems of care for employees at tea plantations in the mountains of Munnar, We visited an employee-owned tea company that provides housing, health care, childcare, and shared ownership to families. Our guide, Hadley, shared with us that three generations currently live in his plantation home.
Similarly, in Kollam, “cashew capital of the world,” we visited a cashew factory where we talked with the owner and workers about working conditions, the economy, the community, and families. One of the female workers, Lakshmi, shared with us that she went back to work after her children began their college careers and that her job with the factory was providing the extra money she needed to support her parents.
I am truly blessed to have been able to participate in this study abroad opportunity. Not only has it inspired in me an interest in mental health care for the ageing population, but it has also been a reminder about the respect, love, and attention that our ageing population truly deserves. As one of our speakers so eloquently put it, “A library of information is lost with each elderly person’s passing. It is in their experiences, education, and life lessons that we can find peace in our futures.”
A return to India in some capacity is very much in my future. In the meantime, I will relive my experience through my memories of the aromatic air, spicy foods, vibrant colors, and the sound of the Malayalam word for thank you… “nun-nee.”