Sarah Cordell (C’20) is pictured with Sewanee area resident Barbara Dale. Photo courtesy of Cordell.
By Luke Gair
Even before entering middle school, Sarah Cordell (C’20) was consistently glued to the television during reruns of Forensic Files, enthralled with the forensic psychologists featured on the program. After a short stint of believing that career was for her, it soon became evident certain aspects were “a bit too abstract in practice.” Although an interest in forensics may have faded, Cordell always found continuity in her inclination towards the more broad field of psychology.
It was in the eleventh grade when she was able to specify an exact profession, where she described a field trip her history class took to a nursing home. “I left and I remember crying at how sad I was with the conditions,” she said, but she went on to note a level of excitement she had not yet experienced, saying it was “the first time I knew I wanted to work with the elderly.” After further research, she realized that geriatric psychology was a feasible career path.
When Cordell first began at Sewanee, her main notion of psychology was “mental illnesses and how to combat it and therapy, and that was it.” She continued, “there’s a lot of different avenues to it. You can have health psychology which focuses on how to positively live and take care of yourself. Or you can have cognitive psychology, which is judgement, decision-making, and reasoning.” She appreciates the extremely multifaceted nature of the subject, and even more important, its applicability to a variety of fields. She emphasized how many forget that being a psychology major entails more than a simple understanding of abnormal behaviors.
Realizing exact plans for her career path may appear as a relief, but oftentimes the lack of focus on aging and adult development within the course curriculum makes it difficult. Though these troubles, she still manages to stay on track.
She currently hopes to become a clinical psychologist who focuses on geriatrics and works with patients through memory therapy for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia “at a holistic level.” Through this, she would have opportunities to research “the progression of memory loss, but also to help them recover and learn to cope with losing their memory before we try to drug them up and give them medicine, which is common.”
Additionally, Cordell hopes to offer family counseling for those who unsure as to how “to cope with having a family member lose their memory… [for those] spouses [who] live with someone for fifty years and don’t know what to do anymore because their partner doesn’t remember them.” She stated the importance of learning how to care for someone in a way that doesn’t only focus on their loss of memory, “but rather increases their way of life.”
Further along on her timeline is a plan to open her own nursing home with a memory unit and one that is entirely aggregate in its care structure, meaning it will offer chiropractic care as well as massage, sound, and dance therapies. With families across the nation currently struggling to afford geriatric care for loved ones, she stated her desire to “have one that is affordable so we don’t have families that are stuck between putting food on the table or taking care of their loved ones. “
In less than a year, all members of the Baby Boomer generation will be 65 or older. Cordell stated how dire the “huge need for geriatric care of any kind” is, going on to detail how many “family practitioners today don’t really know what to do with the elderly, even dental care for some people. As a whole, our nation needs to be more equipped for them… we need to change our viewpoint on senior citizens, as aging is not a progression of losses.”
Before even venturing into the professional world of psychological care, she has already begun making a lasting impact on the elderly community in the Sewanee area. In her sophomore year, she began volunteering with Folks at Home, a local organization whose website describes a goal of catering to its members “in a continuing a dignified and comfortable lifestyle.” More recently, she does about eight hours of work a week. One of the many branches of her job includes a class she teaches for arthritis pain management.
Throughout the school term, she works to recruit more student volunteers, highlighting the “need for home visits… most of my work is focused on [these] home visits and offering these allow people to improve their health while also getting socialized.”
“In psychology,” she begins, “[one learns] the importance of socialization and social relationships and how that plays into the role of someone’s overall well-being… and seeing that translate into the home visits and the work I do is so rewarding. It reaffirms to me that I am on the right path and that I am doing what I need to be doing.”