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Elder Affairs Champion Urges Students to Get Involved in Health Policy

Alice Bonner '89 Returns to Campus for Healthy Aging Forum

Alice Bonner Photo by Tory Germann
Alice Bonner '89 urges students to lend their clinical expertise to health care policy.

05/17/2017
By Karen Angelo

Nurses, physical therapists, dietitians and other health care professionals typically go into their fields to treat patients, not get embroiled in public policy debates. 

But Alice Bonner ‘89, who spoke on campus to students, staff, faculty and community agency representatives at the recent third annual Healthy Aging-Living Well Forum, urged students to do both. 

“We really need clinicians in government,” she said. “Remember to lend your clinical expertise and experience to influence health care policy. In Washington, many times I was the only nurse in the room making health policy decisions that would influence millions of peoples’ lives.” 

Bonner got her first glimpse of the power of policymaking to improve health when she was a master’s student in the Solomont School of Nursing’s gerontological nursing program. She assessed community services for the elderly in her hometown of Leominster and worked with the city council and mayor to make improvements. 

Karen Devereaux Mellillo, Christina Larsen, Alice Bonner
Interim Dean Karen Devereaux Melillo, Larsen Financial Planning CEO Christina Larsen and Secretary of Elder Affairs in Massachusetts Alice Bonner.
Nearly three decades later, after treating patients as a nurse practitioner and working for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services during the Obama administration, she now leads the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs. 

Her overarching goal is to make the Commonwealth an age-friendly state that is welcoming, safe and healthy for people of all ages. 

The age-friendly designation, created by the World Health Organization, is a strategy to help older people stay connected with their communities and improve their overall health and well-being. 

“It’s not only the right thing to care for older adults in the best way possible, but it’s also a public health imperative,” she said. “People are living longer, and baby boomers are aging. We need to integrate health care systems into our communities.” 

One strategy is to bring programs to the local level. An example she cited is the state’s dementia-friendly initiative, which supports people living with the disease—which affects one in eight people in Massachusetts. Elder Services developed a toolkit that includes guidance for people who work at banks, restaurants, hair salons and town halls and who may come in contact with people living with dementia. 

Karen Devereaux Melillo, interim dean of the Solomont School of Nursing, noted the impact Bonner has made through her work and scholarship. 

“Alice Bonner has made significant and sustained contributions to the field of gerontological nursing with her research on quality and safety in health care systems and community-based settings,” said Devereaux Melillo, who also serves as the director of the Center for Gerontology Research and Partnerships. “With expertise in preventing elder abuse and falls, improving dementia care and reducing unnecessary antipsychotic medication use, she is a true advocate for the care of the older population and a leader in her field.” 

Sponsored by Larson Financial Planning, the forum featured a faculty research panel on topics that included smart sensing for geriatric home health, vitamins and cognitive function, interventions for asthma in elderly housing, and using mobile technology to assess cognitive function. 

Five Zuckerberg College of Health Science students who worked with older adults at Summit Eldercare, a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), presented their project on how to prepare for emergencies. The project is a culmination of an interprofessional education collaboration between the students and PACE, a federal program that serves residents age 55 and older who are eligible for nursing home care, yet seek to live as independently as possible in their own homes.