For Dr. Ana Alfaro, her recent selection as a fellow for the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program is right on track for the full circle journey that is her life.
She currently serves as a Research Fellow in the Advanced Fellowship Program in Geriatrics at VA Palo Alto Health Care System and is now detailed to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, where she informs the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging of issues related to the care of aging Americans.
Her determination remained unwavering from a young age as she watched her parents work hard to ensure she had a bright future. As the only child in her family who originated from Cuba and immigrated to the United States, the importance of education was instilled into her at a young age.
“Becoming a doctor has been molded by my parents, who were both engineers in Cuba but were not able to continue their profession here. I can say all of the sacrifices were not in vain,” said Dr. Alfaro.
She grew up in the predominantly Spanish-speaking and older community of Hialeah, Florida, where mental health was not a common conversation if even discussed at all. She was able to see first-person how underserved this population was, and how little resources were available.
As an undergraduate in Psychology, she had initially wanted to be a sport psychologist. She worked at the school gym and had the opportunity of training an 85-year-old woman with osteoporosis. That experience sparked her interest in helping older adults, but it was an internship with a local Senator that gave her a taste of policymaking.
“Being born under a communistic regime in Cuba, it was a thrilling experience to see people using their voice to make a change in the government. I realized pairing my love for older adults and helping to change policy could impact the lives of people in my community who don’t often get the attention they need,” said Dr. Alfaro.
These two experiences set the stage for her career trajectory. She matched as a geropsychology intern at VA Palo Alto and, following the completion of her internship, received her doctorate in clinical psychology. Dr. Alfaro went on to accept her current position in the Advanced Fellowship Program in Geriatrics at VA Palo Alto Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC) and became a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Dr. Alfaro’s professional interest focuses on increasing access to mental health services to underserved aging populations. One way she is doing this is by leveraging technology as a means of increasing access. For instance, through a GRECC clinical demonstration program, she teaches older Veterans how to use mental health mobile apps as an innovative mean to address their well-being goals. Most recently, she received funding to test a 6-week telehealth group intervention for older Veterans with problematic drinking. The intervention aims to coach older Veterans on how to use a VA mobile app called VetChange for self-management.
In the meantime, she will be on a year-long track with the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program, which will offer her a unique training opportunity, focusing on policy issues, communication skills development, and professional networking.
“As a psychologist, I feel like we are not typically trained to be in policy, so I hope I can open doors for others to get involved. It’s important for those interested in this field to use their voice for the common good, and that is exactly what I am trying to do,” said Dr. Alfaro.
Visit the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program website to learn more about the program and how Dr. Alfaro will be shaping U.S. policy.