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Doctoral student receives award from Gerontological Society of America

Jennifer Perion, a doctoral student in the Health Education Program in the School of Population Health, received a student award from the Gerontological Society of America at its Annual Scientific Meeting for her thesis topic on “The Effect of Friendship on Malignant Social Psychology in Persons With Dementia.”

Perion chose her topic after observing dementia firsthand as her grandmother passed away from it and her mother-in-law lives with the condition.

Jennifer Perion, a doctoral student in the Health Education Program, received one of five poster awards presented to Gerontological Society of America student members. She presented her research on “The Effect of Friendship on Malignant Social Psychology in Persons With Dementia” at the society’s annual scientific meeting.

“I have observed social behaviors directed toward my mother-in-law that place her at a disadvantage and diminish her abilities,” Perion said. “I decided to research these negative behaviors and attempt to understand ways to overcome them. Friendship, which is voluntary in nature, offers opportunities for reciprocal exchanges that might help individuals feel more positive in their social interactions.”

For her research, Perion worked with the local Alzheimer’s Association, where she conducted face-to-face interviews with 10 individuals with dementia.

“I asked them about changes in their social relationships after memory loss. I then asked them about their friends and opportunities for reciprocal exchanges among their friendships,” Perion, a part-time instructor in the School of Population Health, said.

These interviews revealed five themes related to dementia and friendship, Perion said: recognizing the importance of longevity in friendship; helping one another is a normal part of friendship; feeling “alive” through the give and take in friendship; knowing somebody is there for them; and seeking security through friendship.

“A lot of focus is put on the medical and financial aspects of dementia care, but it is equally important to consider the quality of life experienced by these individuals,” Perion said. “These themes suggest that there are opportunities to improve the lives of persons with dementia by encouraging the continuation of existing friendships and providing fulfilling social experiences.”

Only five poster awards were given out by the Emerging Scholar and Professional Organization to Gerontological Society of America student members who had an abstract accepted for presentation at the conference. 

“Receiving an award from an organization that is the driving force behind advancing innovation in aging — both domestically and internationally — is a great honor,” said Dr. Victoria Steiner, associate professor in the School of Population Health and assistant director of the Center for Successful Aging. “Jennifer’s research provides insight into ways to improve the well-being of the growing number of individuals with dementia in our country. It makes me proud as a faculty member to see one of my students excel in an area that she is passionate about.”

The Gerontological Society of America is the nation’s oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education and practice in the field of aging.