Actress Nancy Lewis plays the role of 74-year-old Thelma Reed during a mock assessment with UMSL student Debbie Eldridge

Debbie Eldridge entered the home of 74-year-old Thelma Reed to find a frail elderly woman who wasn’t eating regularly, enjoyed her morning cocktail and was not in the habit of taking her medication. Eldridge spent almost an hour with Reed, learning about her daily activities and assessing what needs, if any, could be met by local agencies. This home assessment is typical of those done throughout the state by social service professionals.

However, Eldridge’s encounter with Thelma was anything but typical. Eldridge, a graduate gerontology student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, wasn’t actually entering Thelma’s home, but a video studio set up to look like a home, and Reed was not a frail woman suffering from dementia, but St. Louis actress Nancy Lewis.

Tom Meuser, director of the Gerontology Program at UMSL, created the mock assessment encounter to give his students the real-life, hands-on experience of conducting a home assessment with someone resembling a clients. 

“I don’t expect perfection, but it’s interesting to see how each student handles this situation,” Meuser said. “This is a great experience because they can’t study for this, they have to know how to handle whatever the actor throws at them, just as they would in a real home assessment.”

The 14 graduate students in the class were required to treat the mock assessment like a real evaluation.

Actress Nancy Lewis, a 2006 Kevin Kline Award winner, said she enjoyed the opportunity to play the character of Thelma and to interact with UMSL students.

“I think this is an amazing learning tool,” Lewis said. “I’ve enjoyed this character and the opportunity to export her life in an honest, thoughtful way. Dr. Meuser created the character, and I added the life and some improvisation. Not only has the student had the experience, but I’ve come away from the assessments with a much richer outlook on aging.”

After each mock assessment, Meuser spent time with each student, outlining the pros and cons of their performance. The students then were able to view their recorded interviews and produce a written assessment of Thelma.

Lois Pierce, director of the School of Social Work, said Meuser’s innovative teaching techniques give UMSL students the needed hands on experience for their future careers.

“Although social work and gerontology students frequently role play interviews, this is the first time we have used a professional actor in the role of a client for assessing students’ skills,” Pierce said. “This was much more successful than we expected. The videos and the feedback from the actor will provide students and faculty with a tremendous amount of helpful information.”

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Jen Hatton

Jen Hatton

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