UTHealth Houston launches program in honor of Carmel B. Dyer, MD

By Jaimy Jones, Office of Public Affairs

Dr. Carmel Dyer
Carmel Bitondo Dyer, MD, led the UTHealth Houston Consortium on Aging and was the first director of the Joan and Stanford Alexander Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. (Photo courtesy of Dwight C. Andrews/UTHealth Houston)

The legacy of Carmel Bitondo Dyer, MD, lives on in the same communities she sought to impact throughout her career.

The late Dyer revolutionized geriatric health care across the country. She led the UTHealth Houston Consortium on Aging and was the first director of the Joan and Stanford Alexander Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at McGovern Medical School.

In a unique collaboration, the UTHealth Houston Consortium on Aging, CarePartners, and Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church have teamed up to form the Carmel B. Dyer Second Family Program to combat elder abuse, using startup funding from ElderAbuse.org, a national nonprofit led by Dyer’s longtime friend and colleague Mark Lachs, MD, MPH, from Cornell University.

Second Family Program pairs health professional students and peers with older adults living in Houston’s Third Ward to provide social connection, prevention, and resilience against elder mistreatment, and supportive care for those living in isolation and/or with dementia.

“This program continues Dr. Dyer’s compassionate work, and I know she would be proud,” said Jason Burnett, PhD, co-director of the Texas Elder Abuse and Mistreatment Institute and associate professor of geriatric and palliative medicine at McGovern Medical School. “These ‘second family’ connections for homebound individuals offer ongoing support and companionship to Third Ward residents, where Dr. Dyer spent two decades providing clinical care to older adults.”

Volunteers are trained to identify and respond to signs and symptoms of elder mistreatment and provide basic coaching and consultation to family caregivers, specifically regarding stress management and available resources.

Efforts include weekly telephone calls, in-person visits to individuals’ homes, group education, social events, and respite care options for the participants’ family members and caretakers.

“My father, Dr. William A. Lawson, had a long and fruitful partnership with Dr. Dyer,” said Cheryl Lawson, a key member of the initiative’s advisory council and daughter of the founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. “They both had a passion for these seniors. Many of those seniors have been part of the Wheeler Avenue family for decades, and we’re concerned about their isolation and heightened risk for abuse and neglect due to COVID. Through this collaboration, we can bring compassion and connection right into their homes. It’s a marvelous way to honor Dr. Dyer’s work, and it’s only possible because of community partnerships and trust.”

Trained health professional students from UTHealth Houston and Rice University and community peers have started reaching out to Third Ward’s elderly population to offer meaningful social connections. The program has already shown success with five older adults enrolled and many more students ready to engage.

The UTHealth Houston Consortium on Aging played an instrumental role in the development of the Carmel B. Dyer Second Family Program.

“We will stay fully engaged with this program to support its mission and success at meeting the social needs of some of the most vulnerable older adults in our community — a mission that Dr. Dyer lived,” said Burnett, a core faculty member of the Consortium on Aging. “The consortium will do this through steering committee work as we all assist this program with evaluation efforts.”

CarePartners, a Houston-based nonprofit organization that provides care for older adults and people with dementia, is providing logistical support. ElderAbuse.org, an advocacy and educational nonprofit has provided funding as well as donor matching.

Organizers plan to expand the program to two more underserved areas where Dyer treated patients, Burnett said.

Dyer dedicated her career to preventing elder abuse, training the next generation of geriatricians, and revolutionizing access to specialized health care for older adults. She died in 2021 at the age of 62.