Alumna Adria Navarro Receives Prestigious Fulbright Scholar Award

2011 PhD in Gerontology graduate will research the role of social workers in evaluating older adults’ capacity to make decisions.

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology alumna Adria Navarro, program manager for the Community Resource Center for Aging at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital (USC-VHH), has been awarded a 2022 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program offers over 400 awards in more than 130 countries for U.S. citizens to teach, conduct research and carry out professional projects around the world. As part of her award, Navarro will spend three months at the University of York in the United Kingdom conducting research on the role of social workers in evaluating the decision-making capacity of older adults.

“Thanks to Dr. Kathleen Wilber, my doctoral education included three years of weekly attendance at the Los Angeles County Elder Abuse Forensic Center,” Navarro said. “There, I had the good fortune to learn about the response to elder mistreatment from an array of professionals practicing in health, mental health, and the judicial systems. The late Dr. Susan Bernatz, a neuropsychologist, regularly highlighted the role decisional capacity played in crimes of alleged financial exploitation.”

To see that quality decisional capacity evaluations are accessible in California, Navarro began tracking where social workers are sanctioned to provide them. Social workers are the largest providers of mental health services in the state, employed within many institutions of care, she explained, and several U.S. states’ legislation also allow for social workers to evaluate capacity for the courts.

“I also learned that the United Kingdom sanctions social workers in their Mental Health Act,” Navarro said. “To learn more about this policy, what could be better than a cultural exchange, where experts and persons impacted could inform on lessons learned when applying the ideas to our state?”

Navarro, who completed her PhD in Gerontology in 2011, is a California licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years serving community-dwelling older persons through positions at hospitals, managed care, inpatient/outpatient psychiatry, and adult day health care. As a gerontologist, she describes her career as dedicated to optimizing health/mental health practices, interventions, and environmental supports for older persons.

As program manager for the Community Resource Center for Aging at USC-VHH, Navarro’s mission is to help older adults and their loved ones navigate the challenges of aging and leverage a wide range of available resources to improve their quality of life. The Community Resource Center for Aging helps older adults improve their quality of life by providing access to a robust network of resources, community-based services and support systems that specialize in navigating the complexities of aging.

Navarro is also an associate professor of social work at Azusa Pacific University, where she has taught for more than a decade, while clinically supervising master’s level social workers in preparation for licensure.

“I feel privileged to be meeting and collaborating with the University of York faculty, specifically those who are researching social care for older adults, including the domain of decisional capacity,” she said. “My goal from this cultural exchange is to return with fresh input for directly serving older adults in our state, as well as increasing my ability to provide education/training about elder justice involving decisional capacity evaluations.”

Researching how to accurately and efficiently evaluate decisional capacity supports the larger goal of promoting self-determination by older persons, Navarro said.

“I hope to champion the notion of a culture that is responsive when supports and/or protections are necessary to maintain an older person’s preferences, well-being, and safety,” she said.

Navarro is “an ideal person for this important work,” said her mentor, Professor Kathleen Wilber, Mary Pickford Chair in Gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School.

“So much of the work in elder justice, health care and long-term services and supports requires accurate and available decisional capacity assessments. But we in the U.S. are not where we need to be,” Wilber said. “Adria brings a variety of skills, interests, and knowledge to the Fulbright experience, including a unique blend of research, policy, and practice, a background in interdisciplinary assessment, and a very strong foundation in gerontology, elder justice, health care, and long-term services and supports. … I am very pleased that she has been selected for this important award.”

Release courtesy of the Keck School of Medicine of USC; additional reporting by Beth Newcomb.