Centering the Gerontology Center: 5 Questions with Amy Silva-Smith

With a steady increase in the nation’s older population, studies and efforts to support gerontology-focused education and research are more important than ever before.

Founded in 1984, the Gerontology Center supports research and scholarship that seeks to understand the aging process and related experiences.

To learn more, we sat down with Silva-Smith to discuss the mission and vision of the Gerontology Center, and its goals for the future. Read Silva-Smith’s interview below.

1. Describe how and why the Gerontology Center at UCCS was started.

The Gerontology Center at UCCS was founded in 1984 by Robert P. Larkin, Professor in Geography. Initially the Gerontology Center offered classes to older adult learners in the Colorado Springs area. Soon the educational program was expanded to include the courses for the academic certificate in Gerontology. From the beginning, the Gerontology Center has been the effort of multiple academic disciplines (e.g., biology, geography, health sciences, nursing, psychology, sociology) and has involved a group of committed faculty members who share a scientific interest in the aging process.

This tradition was continued under the leadership of director Sara Qualls, Kraemer Family Professor of Aging Studies. In Fall 2022, Amy Silva-Smith, Schoffstall Endowed Professor of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, assumed the role of director. She is an adult/gerontological nurse practitioner, researcher and teacher.

2. How does the Center’s work align with your own background?

As a teacher in both the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, I teach courses with a focus on pathophysiology and nursing care of older adults. My nursing practice, spanning 34 years as a nurse and nurse practitioner, has been mainly with older adult populations in primary care settings. My current research focuses on strategies to promote sustained physical activity after stroke. I have mentored students in research in previous studies on older adults’ participation in recommended prevention behaviors and falls in older adults living in supportive care environments.

3. Share a project, piece of research or initiative the Center has advanced that you’re proud of.

The Center is currently advancing an international initiative called Age-Friendly University. The intent of AFU designation is for a university to formally commit to the importance of ongoing attention to having adequate built environment, resources, and support for all older people who engage in the UCCS community. Universities, including UCCS, that educate nontraditional students and seek to be supportive to aging students’ and employees’ needs are working on age-friendly solutions. To date, we have support for this initiative from the UCCS Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Faculty Assembly, and we are seeking support from additional campus leadership later this spring.

4. What do you see as the next big topic or issue the Center will tackle in the next year?

The Center is seeking funding to support mentorship of diverse undergraduate students in gerontology-specific research areas on campus. We have a pool of highly skilled gerontological researchers from across the campus who are currently engaged in mentoring students in their labs and who would be able to expand that important work focusing on gerontological research if more funding was available. The goal is to expand the pipeline of students interested in graduate studies in aging topics to grow the number of doctorally-prepared people doing research in aging.

Another focus needs to continue to be expanding the workforce in long-term care as this is a critical area of need locally, regionally, and nationally. One of our faculty affiliates, Judy Scott from the nursing department, currently has funding from El Paso County and the State of Colorado to promote long-term care careers to young people and adults interested in a career shift. Her team is developing a training curriculum for use by direct care workers to ensure a sound knowledge base and competency level.   

5. What part of the Center’s work most excites or inspires you?

I am excited about the growing momentum for research collaboration among the Faculty Affiliates of the Center within and across disciplines. I believe that our best work comes from working in teams with researchers across disciplines who help us consider new ideas and strategies as we work toward a greater understanding of aging. We seek to grow our team of faculty affiliates by including members of academic departments from across the UCCS campus. More diversity leads to more ideas for solving the problems and challenges that may arise in the process of aging.

This article is part of a series of stories of UCCS’ academic centers. You can learn more about the Gerontology Center online.