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Jason L. Burnett, PhD and the fight to end elder abuse

Even as he applied for the job opening, Jason L. Burnett, PhD, had no idea what a geriatric specialist actually did; fresh out of graduate school, he thought it might have something to do with nutrition for older adults.

“But I knew I had to get a job if I wanted to eat, so I applied,” he says.

Now a passionate advocate for older adults, Burnett’s unexpected career path has blossomed into a deeply held commitment to fighting elder abuse—one that earned a 2019 Innovator in Aging award from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

“When I first started doing assessments for self-neglect, I developed such a fondness for older adults that only grew over time,” he says. “I met fascinating people with great stories who had fallen on hard times, and I realized there’s so much more to be done.”

Burnett co-directs the Texas Elder Abuse and Mistreatment Institute (TEAM), a partnership between UTHealth and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Division of Adult Protective Services (APS). TEAM works to prevent elder abuse while improving the lives of older adults who have already suffered abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

For years APS struggled with care planning for medically complex older adults who might lack decision-making abilities. Once in question, determining whether a person can function autonomously requires a functional capacity assessment, which sometimes takes several weeks, especially in remote areas.

Recognizing that technology could hold the key, Burnett and his team created an online portal that APS can use to indicate when an older adult needs an assessment. Using a tablet or smartphone, an APS caseworker can have a geriatric health care specialist from TEAM conduct a video assessment and save critical time.

“Within the first three months, every APS district in the state had used it,” he says. “Prior to this, we would assess 80 to 100 cases a year. Now, we’re looking at around 600. Other states have reached out to us about replicating the program.”

Burnett sees the Innovator in Aging award not as a recognition of his own effort, but of the people who worked together to make the program a reality.

“It’s a good reward for our team doing something innovative that really touches lives of older adults every day,” he says.

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