Laurie Theeke, Ph.D., R.N., of the West Virginia University School of Nursing, has worked for 20 years with chronically ill older adults in rural parts of the state. West Virginia is one of the most rural states in the country, and has the second-highest percentage of people who are 65 and older. Her previous research revealed that feelings of loneliness affect older adults’ health. Her current research will focus on ways to reduce these feelings, and thereby improve their health.

Dr. Theeke has just won a competitive grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for this research. Theeke is one of just 12 nurse educators from around the country to receive the three-year $350,000 Nurse Faculty Scholar award this year. It is given to junior faculty who show outstanding promise as future leaders in academic nursing.

“I cannot begin to explain how honored I am to have received this award,” Theeke said. “Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I will have the opportunity, as a new faculty member, to continue to develop as a leading researcher and to help develop other excellent teachers and scholars. It is extremely exciting to be able to bring this award to my alma mater, and to continue research with older adults in Appalachia with whom I have been practicing for 20 years.”

Theeke is a Family Nurse Practitioner and a clinical nurse specialist in gerontology in the WVU Clark K. Sleeth Family Medicine Center. Her research has recently been published in several academic journals.

Theeke’s research will focus on interventions to reduce rural older adults’ feelings of loneliness. Older adults who are lonely experience more chronic illness, have poorer health habits, visit clinics more frequently and tend to have longer hospital or nursing home stays, all of which diminish their quality of life and increase their dependence on the health care system.

“Loneliness creates emotional pain that affects the physical being,” added Theeke. “Diminishing the stress responses to loneliness may actually improve health behaviors, and therefore, chronic illness.”

Using a culturally sensitive model based on the tradition of Appalachian story telling, Theeke’s intervention will provide a venue for lonely older adults suffering from chronic illness to tell their story to self and peers. Study participants will be encouraged to share stories of loneliness and chronic illnesses, discuss how they view themselves in relationships and learn to find meaning in their life experiences. The study includes measuring participants’ physical manifestations of stress, including chronic illness.

Georgia Narsavage, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., F.A.A.N., dean of the West Virginia University School of Nursing and Ruth T Goins, Ph.D., associate professor and director of research at the Center on Aging/Community Medicine at West Virginia University, will serve as Theeke’s mentors.

“Dr. Theeke’s work to design and test interventions that address older adults living in Appalachia is critically important,” said Narsavage. “We are delighted that she was selected for this prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation award. Her research will benefit not only the patient population she’s addressing, but also the students who work with her.”

The Nurse Faculty Scholars program is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered through the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

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CONTACT: Kim Fetty, HSC News Service