Catherine Johnson with her grandmother at her 110th birthday celebration.

Alumna Catherine Johnson Encourages Vitality Through Geropsychology

Photo of Catherine Johnson, Psy.D., Graduate School of Professional Psychology alumna

Catherine Johnson, Psy.D., Graduate School of Professional Psychology alumna

Catherine Johnson, Psy.D., has a family history of longevity. Johnson’s grandmother, Catherine Hagel, lived to the ripe old age of 114, even living independently on the family farm on until she was 100.

“She was always an inspiration in my life because you naturally believe you’re going to live long. Because of her I’ve always had a strong interest in aging and wondered why she lived so vitally,” Johnson said.

As a licensed psychologist specializing in the field of geropsychology – a branch of psychology addressing concerns of older adults – Johnson lives the vitality she saw in grandmother, and helps others to live it too. Earning her Doctorate (Psy.D.) in counseling psychology in 2005 also fulfilled a lifelong dream and marked a new beginning in a career Johnson had started thirty years earlier.

“I always wanted to be a psychologist, but when I graduated in 1973 with an undergraduate degree in psychology, I took the first professional job that came along to support myself,” Johnson said.

She landed in human resources, but later became a nursing home administrator to bend her professional work toward her interests in older adults. At the same time, she never let go the idea of becoming a psychologist. In 2000, she earned a Master of Arts in Counseling and Psychological Services from Saint Mary’s University. A few years later, she took another step in achieving her life goals.

“It was when adversity struck that I choose to go back to school to pursue my life-long urge to be a psychologist,” she said.

The doctorate program’s cohort model appealed to Johnson, as well as the flexibility it gave her to continue to work full time and direct her studies to older adults.

“Since I was working in long-term care and knew about the work of the psychologists at the Associated Clinic of Psychology (ACP), I knew I wanted to work as a psychologist for ACP or do something like that. Having the vision in mind, I focused as much of my academic work as I could on older adult topics,” Johnson said. “From the get go every course, every paper, I focused it on older adults. Almost everything I did has an application to what I do now.”

For her final project, Johnson created a mental health model for mitigating depression in nursing homes. She was able to consult directly with the director of the ACP to see if her project would be useful in the field.

“The manual that I created is actually what I use in my work in the facilities,” Johnson said.

Johnson more than met her target. She has been working as a licensed psychologist with ACP, a leading organization providing behavior health services to older adults, since 2006.

“The variety of work that we do is phenomenal,” Johnson said.

Geropsychology does not follow the traditional model of clients seeing a psychologist in an office. Instead, Johnson visits nursing homes, complexes for seniors and individual homes. She works not only with older adults but also the people involved in their lives – their care givers and children. She is part educator, part advocate and part counselor.

“This is really a time that family members have to go to a different place in terms of involvement with their parent and they needed education and information about resources in community,” Johnson said.

She also works with staff in long term care facilities to integrate psychology and mental health into care plans.

No two days are alike for Johnson. One day, she might be at an apartment helping a family evaluate whether their parent can still manage his or her finances independently. Another day, she is at a nursing home leading an Alzheimer’s support group, sitting in on a meeting with doctors, and then doing a staff training session on personality disorders. Her goal is to help create a therapeutic milieu for older adults in every situation and stage of life.

Johnson has also stayed involved in the St. Thomas community and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP). She and department chair Christopher Vye, Ph.D., are in the early stages of creating a memory assessment clinic for Psy.D. students through St. Thomas’ Interprofessional Center. Johnson is also working with GSPP faculty member Consuelo Cavalieri, Ph.D., on a community engagement project that connects students in Cavalieri’s life span class with older adults in a senior living complex.

Like her grandmother, Johnson looks forward to fully enjoying every stage of life.

“I am lesson for other people that you can pursue goals and interests across the lifespan,” she said. “I have no intention of ever quitting or retiring. There’s always this idea of reinventing yourself.”