Victoria Kozar – Advocate for Those Who Can’t Advocate for Themselves

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H. Brown
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Victoria Kozar
Victoria Kozar

Victoria Kozar found her passion for geriatrics as one of the pioneer participants in the groundbreaking Students-in-Residence program, spending a year living with the older adults of an assisted living community. After one of her neighbors and close friend from the experience began to struggle with cognitive decline, she dove head first to learn all she could about Alzheimer’s and other dementias. She went on to share her friendship and story on the Steve Harvey show and ABC World News and continues to inspire other young people to see the value of intergenerational relationships.

Ms. Kozar has brought her unique perspective to a state and national level, advocating for Alzheimer’s research, education, and political reform and serves as a Community Dementia Educator. She is also a Certified End-of-Life Specialist and was recognized in 2019 with the LeadingAge CT Aging Services Award of Excellence. Ms. Kozar continues to work towards positively influencing care and reframe how others view aging, as she pursues her medical education at University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she hopes to continue to improve outcomes and infrastructure.

Topics covered:

  • Importance of intergenerational experiences to improve social support and allow individuals to live independently and actively in the community longer
  • Improving early medical student exposure to geriatrics/Alzheimer’s to improve outcomes and early diagnosis
  • How COVID-19 has disproportionally affected those with Alzheimer’s (social isolation, depression, quicker decline, elder abuse at home)
  • Some pertinent policy as an advocate like the elder abuse act, and HOPE for Alzheimer’s (improving physician education/care-planning tools)
  • Victoria’s experience living in an assisted living community and the perspective that she gained (I.e. her neighbors feeling their role in their care was passive, concerns not taken seriously) and the effect of ageism/assumptions in care outcomes

Hanh Brown: [00:00:00] Today I’m excited to welcome Victoria Kozar to Berman living podcast. Thank you so much, Victoria, for joining me.

Victoria Kozar: [00:01:18] and thank you for having me.

Hanh Brown: [00:01:19] Yeah.

[00:01:20] It’s good to have you here with us today. And can we get started by having you share with the audience a little bit about yourself, where you are from and what projects are you working on right now?

Victoria Kozar: [00:01:32] I’m from Connecticut, new Milford, small town in Western Connecticut. So right now I’m actually a medical student at university of Connecticut.

[00:01:39] That’s one of the things I’m working on is I’m very active with the Alzheimer’s association chapter. Here. I work as a health policy ambassador, a community educator, and I just founding the American geriatric society chapter at Yukon.

Hanh Brown: [00:01:53] Congratulations. Wow. Thank you for choosing this industry and making a difference for the older adults.

[00:02:02] I commend you for that. We need more gerontologists and geriatricians.

Victoria Kozar: [00:02:07] Yeah. Part of what I want to do is to inspire more young people. I mean, America is getting older. The world is getting older and we don’t have the workforce to take care of that.

Hanh Brown: [00:02:15]Yeah Okay. So let’s why don’t we get started by having you talk a little bit, why you are so passionate about assisted living and senior care industry?

Victoria Kozar: [00:02:24] Yeah. So when I was in college, my senior year, I took part in a program called the students in residence program. So my entire year I lived in an assisted living community among the residents, developing friendships, I’m hearing from their perspective. What their interpretation of healthcare was the role that they played.

[00:02:41] And I saw that as a future provider, that a lot of older people had a very passive role. They felt in their care. And while I was there, I got very close to one of the residents. Her name was Beth, and we’ve been friends for the past couple of years. And I’ve particularly shifted my interests for Alzheimer’s and dementia because she started experiencing cognitive decline a couple of years ago when I was a 20 something that was something I didn’t have.

[00:03:04] Any experience with, I didn’t really have anyone I could turn to. My peers obviously had gone through the same thing. So I reached out to my local chapter of the Alzheimer’s association. I fell in love with it. I just wanted to make a difference and I didn’t want anyone to ever feel as powerless as I did when we were experiencing that together.

Hanh Brown: [00:03:24] You sound less, you have an old soul. Bless you. That is awesome. I love it. So can you talk about your experience working with seniors in assisted living community? So is this the student and resident program that you were part of?

Victoria Kozar: [00:03:39] that you were part of? Yes. Yes, it was Jen Rosen’s program. So I’ve shifted gears. I have some experience in assisted living.

[00:03:47] Most recently, I spent the last two years before I went to medical school. I’m in skilled nursing facilities. So I quickly saw the night and day of the difference in resources, especially going into this pandemic. That was the end of it was definitely a difference.

Hanh Brown: [00:04:06] Yeah. So what did you see, like some of your biggest challenges that you face while doing this work?

Victoria Kozar: [00:04:13] Biggest challenges? I think most definitely just resources. As far as staffing one, the turnover was incredible. As soon as residents would be comfortable with one caregiver, they would be out the door. Besides that we ran out of PPE several times. It got to the point where it was. Probably the beginning of March where this was before, obviously any policies were in place where staff was instructed not to wear masks or gloves, unless absolutely necessary unless someone was bleeding or actively coughing, which was scary because we didn’t know what was going on and we didn’t feel protected obviously.

[00:04:48] So it was very frustrating to know that there was this disease and not having really any way to really help those who needed.

Hanh Brown: [00:04:57] It’s like a wildfire once it starts, it just exasperates and multiply. Doesn’t it.

Victoria Kozar: [00:05:03] I have to say, given the circumstances and given the resources, those caregivers, especially the certified nursing assistants, those were the really unsung heroes.

[00:05:14] They went in there, guns blazing, working in several different facilities, knowing that these outbreaks were going on and they weren’t afraid.

Hanh Brown: [00:05:21] Yeah, I echo that they are the heroes.

[00:05:24] So what was the most rewarding part of this work for you?

Victoria Kozar: [00:05:29] This work is some days it is exasperating, but on other days, even getting the smallest smile, even if the person doesn’t know who’s on the other end of the phone, or if they don’t know exactly who I was that day, because I spent my time we’re running a dementia unit.

[00:05:45] There were times I’d go into work and it would be a favorite resident who was having a rough day. And it’s heartbreaking to know. They weren’t sure who I was, but even if it was like singing their favorite song, giving them any kind of comfort in their day, I think when you have that fear side, it’s enough to make you go to work the next day.

Hanh Brown: [00:06:03] Yeah, They sure have an impact on us. Don’t they? The older generation parents and grandparents, there’s something about Genuity wisdom. There’s stories. I always find their attitude and life in the spunkiness don’t we wish we have that now and not eighties or nineties.

Victoria Kozar: [00:06:26]So I lived there just overall this position, positivity that every time I had a complaint with my day, I’d have to change my perspective, because even when it was the rainiest crummiest day, they’d find something to smile about.

Hanh Brown: [00:06:38] Yeah, that’s great. What will you take away from this whole experience?

Victoria Kozar: [00:06:44] I think the most important thing is to make sure that whatever you do to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves, with what I saw, we can talk about all the challenges and, and everything too. We’re blue in the face, but until we make a difference and step up, um, especially from an infrastructure standpoint, We have to have the conversations with people who can really make a difference, whether it be in policy and healthcare administration, it’s important to bring these concerns, to bring them up.

[00:07:13] We can’t just keep these conversations between ourselves.

Hanh Brown: [00:07:16] I agree with that. I think folks who are working in the. The aging population, the older adults, whether it’s senior living care providers, I think it’s great that we communicate among each other has come up camaraderie and support one another. I think it’s even more important that we start talking people outside the industry, educating folks who are, let’s say forties and fifties of what’s upcoming for their parents and grandparents providing the awareness and education to be prepared, your living arrangements and your.

[00:07:47] Caregiving arrangements for the later part of life. There’s a lot of problems and I think COVID and cover many. I think it’s really important that not only the folks in senior living and recognizing it, so does the whole world. So I think we all got to step it up with everything going on.

Victoria Kozar: [00:08:01] I think it’s just the beginning. I think finally, all of the shortcomings that we saw in the field or. Becoming a little more mainstream. And I think the importance of care planning, especially, we didn’t know that this was coming and a lot of people didn’t have things in place, people who progressed to during the month of quarantine, for example, and we need to make sure that we have kind of safeguards in place to make sure that we do have the best outcomes, no matter what happens.

Hanh Brown: [00:08:28] So who would you recommend the student in residence programs

Victoria Kozar: [00:08:31] To honestly, any student, even those outside of the fellow care? I think we forget that no matter what we go into, whether it be. Business journalism. We’re going to be exposed to older people, majority of the population right now, and people don’t want to talk about that.

[00:08:48] And people don’t want to be exposed to that. I think a lot of people still think of nursing homes with a negative connotation. Aging is beautiful. And I think we all need to see that. Especially young people because it’s intergenerational relationships are so beneficial, there’s so much that we can learn, but also so much that we can give.

[00:09:05] And this kind of gave an opportunity for that reciprocal relationship there that especially people who are figuring out their careers, college students, It’s really enlightening

Hanh Brown: [00:09:15] It is. I really admire your attitude, your wisdom and the soul that you have. It’s awesome. I love it. I have a daughter around your age and she’s a medical student to undergraduate.
[00:09:30] She volunteer at the geriatrician department and I hear a lot of stories. So I love your spunkiness and attitude and you know, not too many. You know, people who are in their twenties feel this way.

Victoria Kozar: [00:09:43] Yeah. First I found it very isolating, but I use it as my crusade to get other people on our side. Good for you.

Hanh Brown: [00:09:51] All right.

[00:09:53] So how has COVID Disproportionately impacted those with Alzheimer’s

Victoria Kozar: [00:10:00] in the past couple of years, we’ve seen so much progress about figuring out ways to protect ourselves against Alzheimer’s against the risks specifically with the finger study, which came out last year, where we learned the importance of cognitive and social interaction and the importance of healthy diet and thorough up, which was COVID, none of those things could be done.

[00:10:20] So people who might’ve been in the earlier stages, we saw progress. Faster and outcomes became significantly worse over the course of, I think it was June to September, there was over 11,000 additional deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia than we had seen in years past. So we can see just how much that affected people, whether it be being alone without their families.

[00:10:44] The other issue too, was people who were home. A lot of the families didn’t have the tools to. Provide the best kinds of care, the stress that puts on everyone. We also saw an increase in elder abuse, which also caused a lot of the outcomes to be not as great as you would hope. So. I think it came from all angles where it didn’t really matter what circumstance they were in.

[00:11:05] It didn’t just affect those who were in assisted living or skilled nursing, but all.

Hanh Brown: [00:11:12] Yeah, I appreciate that. We all need to keep the older adults safe first and foremost. And I keep saying that it’s a fine balance. You keeping them safe, but also engage in thriving, right? Because we need all of that for our overall wellbeing.

[00:11:30] And it’s a challenge to continue to keep that liveliness. Engagement with families and with each other. And I think if you don’t, those statistics are going to keep going up.

Victoria Kozar: [00:11:44] Yeah. I mean, they’re, they’re continuing to climb, but as you mentioned, it is a balance between maintaining that dignity. I know I wanted to step in.

[00:11:52] So I think it is really important that we continue as a community to reach out to our neighbor. If we know that they’re having a hard time with this, I know my family, we tried to make sure everyone was calling my grandparents several times a week, just to keep them engaged, because think of how bored we were and we have phones and all this technology.

[00:12:10] And even, I feel like some of my social skills weren’t at their peak. After several months of being home, it was really important not to leave anyone behind.

Hanh Brown: [00:12:21] Yeah. What is the importance of inter generational relationships and experiences in today’s world?

Victoria Kozar: [00:12:29] As I said, our world is getting older and I think it’s important to keep our communities as livable for as long as possible.

[00:12:37] If we can keep older people in their homes, engaged in the community, everyone benefits. And as I mentioned before, too, there’s so much we have to learn, especially with technology. I feel like we disengage. Sometimes we lose that benefit of face-to-face relationships. Especially when I was in college, I founded an organization called old friends and new pairing young people and older adults to have those face-to-face conversations.

[00:13:01] And it was incredible what people gained from it, where they’re so used to calling or texting a friend. And to write a letter to someone, or just sit for a couple hours and talk about family and things that were important to them. I do a lot of perspective and I think you appreciate all that life has to offer a whole lot more.

Hanh Brown: [00:13:19] Very true. You’re very wise.

Victoria Kozar: [00:13:27] I give that to my friends from assisted living. It’s not all me that wasn’t comes from friendships.

Hanh Brown: [00:13:36] So do these relationships have similar impacts on the younger and the older person?

[00:13:43] Or does it bring different benefits to both parties?

Victoria Kozar: [00:13:48] I think it definitely brings some similar and some different benefits.

[00:13:51] Obviously, as far as for the older people, they often talked about how it was nice. To feel young, again, to talk about things that are important to young people to learn about pop culture. We often found ourselves sharing music or movies with each other, and they said it helped keep them current, but at the same time for the wisdom that they shared.

[00:14:15] Reminding us, what was important, just even talking about culture that we might’ve been disconnected to ourselves as the generations go on. It was nice to learn a couple words in Italian that I wasn’t able to learn from my parents because they’ve been speaking, passing some recipes along. It was really great.

[00:14:30] And things that you just can’t get from people your own age. I don’t know. I think there’s something very special about that. I agree.

Hanh Brown: [00:14:39] Yeah, I’m smiling because what you’re sharing with me is the same thing that my daughter share with me often when either she’s having issues with either schools were roommates.

[00:14:52] This is years ago now. Relationship. She really enjoy going into the geriatric department at Michigan and Friday and Saturday. And hang out with people, your friends won’t tell you, I’m telling you exactly and everything that you’re saying, I’m laughing and admiring, but it touches near and dear. And I thought, I’m just thinking to myself, that’s a wonderful thing that, that you would want to spend Friday and Saturday night. In a place with old people. And she said, mom, they just tell me their stories and they listen, they’re really genuine.

[00:15:30] And they’re smart and they’re just real people. It’s wonderful. I love everything that you’re saying. And I really admire, because I think you’re a very good example to your peers in high school kids and the younger generation.

Victoria Kozar: [00:15:43] So good for you.

Hanh Brown: [00:15:45] Yeah, absolutely. What has been your most impactful in intergenerational relationship that you’ve had in your life and what did you learn from it?

Victoria Kozar: [00:15:58] Absolutely. So as an intern, before my friend Beth and I, I still see her several times in the month, having a relationship with her. I think when I went into that experience, I expected a lot of the relationships to be like having many grandparents. And I quickly learned, especially with Beth, I had some of those kinds of relationships.

[00:16:16] But we quickly found that we connected on a level where we were more like friends, where we were able to talk about our fears, our passions, things we wanted to do, things we wanted to see. And it was so special because I don’t think either of us expected that where we’re, she’ll tell me off. And you’re like my sister and hearing that from someone who’s 93, I think there’s something beautiful about that.

[00:16:39] Despite the generations between us, she’s old enough to be my great grandmother. We can still have this bond.

Hanh Brown: [00:16:48] That’s wonderful. Yeah. And you know, it’s, it’s a treasure that you can have that person to commiserate with something that’s very personal and there’s no obligation or pressure of any source.

Victoria Kozar: [00:17:07] Yeah. She was one of the first people to meet my boyfriend and everyone thinks that’s funny. And I’m like, not your parents, not your best friend from school.

[00:17:15] I’m like, Oh no, that doesn’t like him. It doesn’t matter.

Hanh Brown: [00:17:25] Yeah. That’s sweet. Gosh, I’m just thinking maybe my daughter is doing that. How come I haven’t
[00:17:31] Victoria Kozar: [00:17:31] heard anything asking for somebody else’s approval.

[00:17:37] That’s great. So how can people build new inner generational relationships? It must be more difficult today, especially because of the pandemic and the social isolation.

Victoria Kozar: [00:17:49] Absolutely. I think the best thing you can do is to reach out it’s working in a nursing home. I wish I heard from the students because sometimes there was so little that we could do as far as activities when or social interaction, when I would have loved for a student to just call me and say, Hey, is there somebody I could write to or talk on the phone with, or even local senior centers?

[00:18:13] Or even I have the Alzheimer’s association hotline. That’s a great resource to call even to find jobs, support groups that you can meet people. That number is (800) 272-3900. That’s my, that was my first step. Just to call and see what’s out there. I think it can’t hurt. The only thing you can do is gain.

Hanh Brown: [00:18:35] Yeah, absolutely. So you’re an advocate for Alzheimer’s research, education and political reform. Are there specific policies that you’re advocating right now?

Victoria Kozar: [00:18:47] right now? I think especially timely policy is going on right now. One is the care for Alzheimer’s act and that is educating. Upcoming physicians, current physicians on just what care planning benefits are available and billable through Medicare and Medicaid.

[00:19:05] A lot of the times, sometimes the diagnoses aren’t well discussed or disclosed to patients sometimes just close to the family. And it’s just providing that extra layer of education to have those conversations and to make the time, especially with the pandemic going on, it is important to have plans in place.

[00:19:22] And if things get worse or anything happens, So that one I near and dear to me, especially as a future physician, I think that the earlier you can expose people to that, the better also the elder abuse act is very important. It’s providing training for social workers and law enforcement because sometimes challenging behavior is Alzheimer’s and dementia are misinterpreted.

[00:19:45] You might miss the signs of abuse. Especially for people. Who’ve been home that if they do have a call and they do show up on the scene, they have the tools in their tool belt to say, Hey, maybe something’s not right here.

Hanh Brown: [00:19:58] Yeah. That, that line of caregiving and abuse, I’m no expert, but I can imagine that it can be blur.

Victoria Kozar: [00:20:08] Exactly. And sometimes you don’t even recognize it. So it is important to, to give people those tools because people don’t think about financial abuse as well. It isn’t just physical. So that there’s other ways that older people can be taken advantage of, especially those with cognitive decline.

Hanh Brown: [00:20:26] Okay. Very true.

[00:20:28] So part of your advocacy work, you’re a community dementia educator. So please tell us what this means.

Victoria Kozar: [00:20:36] It’s important for people even outside of the field, to be able to recognize certain things, even with the 10 signs and symptoms for Alzheimer’s and dementia, if you’re in a grocery store and you see someone being lost rather than get frustrated that you’re a little bit slower, or maybe we need to have those people in the community to recognize, Hey, this might be someone struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

[00:20:56] And right now what they needed is someone. I’m going to be in their corner. I think it’s very important to have those people out in the community who are ready and able to help out a neighbor in need. So whether it be just recognizing the signs and symptoms, just finding ways to support them via a friend.

[00:21:13] Yeah. I think it’s very important. People of all ages, people of all backgrounds, it’s usually stripped down for everyone to understand. Sorry. I think it’s very important to give yourself the information.

Hanh Brown: [00:21:27] Very true. So now, have you given any thought about your own aging journey and how you would like to grow?

[00:21:36] Actually, it was before a lot of these experiences, it was something that I thought was so far that I don’t have to talk about this. Even think about it for a long time. Having these experiences and meeting these people. I realize that every day is a step towards aging. You want to live your life in a way that you’ll be proud to look back on all these years later.

[00:21:54] So I make sure every day I live intentionally try to bring positivity into the lives of others, behind some of the best advice that I’ve gotten from my friends and neighbors or things like that, because you don’t have to live with any regrets. So. I think that’s very wonderful. I think your parents, I’m sure they’re very proud of the person that you’re becoming and what a good heart you have in wanting to dedicate your career and serving the older adults. So thank you for doing that.

Victoria Kozar: [00:22:24] Oh thank you. It’s really my pleasure.

Hanh Brown: [00:22:28] All right. Um, so do you have anything else that you would like to share?

[00:22:36] Thank you so much for your time. I love what you’re doing. I love your attitude and what a blessing and stay on this path.

Victoria Kozar: [00:22:43] Continue with your success.

[00:22:45] I feel like your daughter and I would be very good friends. Yeah. I know.

Hanh Brown: [00:22:49] I don’t know. She’s not telling me much, you know what I mean? She’s not telling me much.

[00:22:55] I’m just wondering, did she find another like older adult that she’s commiserating with, which is fine.

Victoria Kozar: [00:23:04] Yeah.

Hanh Brown: [00:23:05] So thank you so much.

Hanh Brown: [00:23:10] I enjoy it. So have a good day.

Victoria Kozar: [00:23:14] Take care.

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