Looking Back to Look Forward


I have learned in the Social Work Health Futures lab that we must look back in order to look forward, and I now have an unexpected opportunity to look back on my own life. I grew up on the banks of the lower James River, playing in the salt marsh at low tide. My best friend and I were free to climb trees, build forts, and explore the beach. It was under the towering pine and sweeping magnolia trees that I fell in love with the natural environment. After being away for more than 25 years, I am back in the neighborhood where I grew up. I will be here for three weeks, helping my mother recover from a stroke. This place is the same but different, as I suppose that I am also the same but different.

Growing up on the James in the 1980s, we knew the river was polluted from Kepone, an insecticide manufactured in Hopewell, VA, that was dumped into the river. Throughout my childhood, the James River was closed to fishing due to the contamination. Yet we played in the river nearly every day during the summer, and it is where I learned to sail and water ski. When the pollution was discovered, activists rallied to save this special place. Due to their efforts, I now hear bald eagles calling as I sit on my sister’s screened porch drinking my morning tea, and as the sun sets you can hear the Great Horned Owl hooting. I do not remember ever seeing either species in my youth. The conservation efforts have been largely successful, but this is not the time to let down our guard. Climate change poses substantial risks to coastal communities like my childhood home in Newport News. The crisis of climate change is very real and personal to me, as my adulthood home in Anchorage, Alaska also faces devastating changes due to climate change, as the average temperature in Alaska has risen at twice the rate of the global average (USCCRP, 2018). So it is my love of wild places and my hope for a better future that drew me to participating in the Social Work Health Futures lab.

Yet as I learn about futures concepts, I see the utility across areas of social work practice. During my experience of my mother having a stroke during a global pandemic, I have now become curious about the future of supporting people during stroke treatment and rehabilitation. During the SWHFL, I have learned about creating scenarios to describe a possible future reality that we might experience one day. So during my time in the hospital, I have been creating a scenario for the future of stroke rehabilitation.

In the year 2031, the outlook for people experiencing a stroke will be much improved, so that stroke is less likely to lead to a debilitating disability. Health monitoring devices will detect the onset of a stroke more quickly, allowing people to get medical attention sooner. Families will live with robotic devices, which will provide older adults living alone with emotional support, companionship, and entertainment. The robotic device will be able to call 911 in the event of a medical emergency, such as a stroke, where the older adult cannot speak or use a phone. The robotic device will accompany the stroke patient to the hospital, which can be a lonely, scary time – especially during a pandemic when visitation is limited. As a person who has had a stroke begins the recovery and rehabilitation process, the robotic device will be able to assist with speech and language therapy and support the person with activities of daily living. Stroke victims who are unable to drive will no longer be isolated at home and dependent on others to drive them to the store, out for dinner, or to medical appointments, because they will be able to hire autonomous vehicles when needed, and the vehicles will be available be built with accessibility in mind.

I am new to futures thinking, but I have enjoyed creating this scenario. For me, it has illustrated the importance for the field of social work to be forward thinking and planning for the future. As a social work educator, I want to prepare students to be flexible to adapt their skills for a future that looks very different from today.

About me:

I am a Professor of Social Work at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work, where I serve as the MSW program coordinator. I live, work, and play on the traditional lands of the Dena’ina people in Anchorage. I have lived in Alaska since 1996, except for when I lived in Richmond, VA while earning my MSW from Virginia Commonwealth University (1999 – 2001) and when I lived in Portland, OR while earning my PhD in Social Work and Social Research from Portland State University (2004-2008). My social work practice and research interests include climate change and social work practice, infant and early childhood mental health, mental health consultation, kinship care, and social work distance education.

Written by Mary Dallas Allen

Written by Mary Dallas Allen

Ph.D., MSW