Surviving in a Changing World: Social Work researcher illuminates the impact of environmental changes on older Detroiters

Tam Perry smiling outdoors
WSU Associate Professor of Social Work Tam Perry, PhD

Wayne State University School of Social Work Associate Professor Tam Perry, PhD has been awarded funding by the Wayne State University Healthy Urban Waters (HUW) initiative to study the experiences of older Detroiters within the changing urban landscape.

Understanding the relationship between urban relocation, health and well-being are at the heart of Perry’s research, which focuses primarily on older adults in the metro Detroit and Flint area. Perry’s latest community-based participatory research is funded by the HUW, a collaboration of Wayne State researchers networked with the community focusing on water in an urban setting and the future impacts of human culture on community, ecosystem, and economic health.

Despite growing scientific evidence of the vulnerability of urban dwellers, particularly older adults, to harms from natural and chemical disasters, we lack adequate knowledge of how older persons understand and act upon these risks. Perry’s research, which includes working closely with community organizations in Detroit, State Senator Stephanie Chang, and The Mary Turner Center for Advocacy, will address this information gap. "The impact of climate change and environmental justice is a top priority for me and my office and I'm excited to partner with Wayne State University on this study,” stated Senator Chang. “From industrial and roadway air pollution burdening vulnerable communities of color in my district to coastal flooding in Jefferson Chalmers due to high water levels, climate change needs our urgent attention. It is important that we understand seniors' experiences and attitudes about this critical issue so that we can include everyone's voices in creating solutions."

Healthy Urban Waters logoPerry recently presented at "One World. One Health. One Water.", the HUW 2021 Symposium led by HUW Director and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Carol Miller, PhD, PE. The symposium explored the urban aquatic environment within a One Health context and featured 26 lightning talks by HUW associated faculty, staff and students. Perry’s presentation detailed the importance of bringing the voices of older adults to the forefront of research infrastructure through active community engagement and highlighted the contributions of 2 older adult members of her research team in the development of survey questions and materials designed to be easily understood and used by older adults in the community.  Professor Miller noted that “The work of Healthy Urban Waters embraces a One Health philosophy, and the efforts of Dr. Perry and her team add a critical focus on the health of older adults within our Great Lakes ecosystem”.

Through the course of the study, Perry will survey older adults on climate change and its future impact on the city, along with the impact of local and state water and environmental concerns on the current urban housing environment. In addition, Perry will collect data through community-based focus groups with seniors, surveys and in-depth interviews. Interviews will take place with Detroit seniors in their homes and rental units. Professionals advocating for environmental concerns will also be interviewed to assess current and future housing vulnerabilities and neighborhood infrastructure.  

“Information gathered over the next year will advance our understanding of the impact of changing environments on older adults. This is particularly important for seniors living in distressed urban environments like Detroit, where resources and options for many are limited,” stated Perry. This project is the first step in developing a pool of advocates and research participants for future studies on seniors’ vulnerability in changing environments. Activities from this project will help researchers and advocates understand what prevents Detroiters from participating in research and what motivates others to become involved in environmental justice enterprises.

As a School based in the heart of Detroit, we have a commitment to conducting research that not only advances global knowledge and justice, but also benefits our community and its members. The best way to understand the needs of our community is to ask its members and this project provides us with the opportunity to do just that. – Tam Perry, PhD

As social workers, we move beyond seeing the community only as a potential pool of subjects to be studied, but rather, as an integral partnership. Perry’s research epitomizes this mission and will strengthen the capacity of older Detroiters and supporters to address current and future environmental changes.

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