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Around the time Joan Gillis, MSW, LICSW, left the business world to start a family, her father had a stroke. “I found myself as the caregiver for my father and my children,” she said. Since then, helping both older adults and future generations has been central to her professional life.
Caring for her father led Gillis to develop an interest in geriatric care. She found volunteer opportunities to help other older adults, and she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in social work. “I knew that I wanted to work in geriatrics,” she stated. “I knew it was a group of patients that I really loved.”
With her MSW, Gillis continued training as a fellow in geriatrics at McLean Hospital. She was later employed as a clinical social worker on the geriatric inpatient service. She has worked at the hospital for 24 years. “I’ve been happy to stay here for so long,” she said. “I found my heart, and I found my home.”
In her current role as senior clinical team manager for McLean’s Geriatric Psychiatry Inpatient Services, Gillis cares for older patients, works with families, and supervises clinical social workers for two inpatient programs. She also helps supervise social work interns and serves as a mentor to young social workers and residents from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard South Shore Residency Training Program.
“I try to pass along what I’ve learned, what I call ‘wisdom,’” she said. Gillis also uses her position to champion the role of social workers in health care. “In the news, we hear a lot about nurses and physicians, but not much about what social workers do in the background,” she said. “The contributions they make are often overlooked.” McLean, however, stands out, Gillis said, because “nurses, social workers, and physicians collaborate and are respectful of each role.”
When she’s not mentoring the next generation of social workers, Gillis engages in the critical work of helping elderly patients with their medical, psychiatric, and emotional needs. “These are people who face medical and physical challenges, but also losses and loneliness,” she explained.
“Every year, these people cross a name or two off the holiday card list,” Gillis said. “I help them come to terms with that by listening, validating their feelings, and problem-solving to help find other resources and meaning in their lives.”
For all of her time at McLean, Gillis has worked in close collaboration with Moinuddin Muttakin, MD. “I’m really proud that I’ve worked with the same doctor for 24 years,” she said. “With so many programs and opportunities at McLean, I don’t think you will see a collaboration of psychiatrist and social worker like this again.”
Gillis stated that her collaboration with Muttakin has lasted so long because they share the same feelings about the patients they serve. “We both have the same commitment and passion and empathy for folks who are aging,” she stated. “We appreciate our patients’ rich histories and how resilient they are in the face of losses and transitions.”
Outside of McLean, Gillis also serves as a mentor and an inspiration. She lives with her multigenerational family—all in the same home. “I have a four-year-old grandson and a new grandchild on the way,” she said.
Also, she has found a love for international travel in recent years. “I keep very busy!” she said.