California State University, Fullerton

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Meet Dennis Kao

Social Worker Aims to Improve Health Care for Aging Minorities

March 9, 2015

Dennis Kao's interest in health care disparities and research on aging populations emerged during the seven-plus years he worked as a policy advocate for social welfare and health issues at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), a Los Angeles-based civil rights advocacy organization now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

"My experience as a social worker and advocate, along with past experience interning at a senior center, really fueled my interest in our ever-growing aging population," said Kao, who joined Cal State Fullerton last fall as an assistant professor of social work. "The older population is a vulnerable group that requires both policy and system improvement."

In conjunction with his research on aging-friendly communities, Kao also studies trends of financial exploitation of aging adults, looking at the circumstances that may reveal how specific communities are more vulnerable than others. He also brings his passion for the aging population and his extensive real-world experience as a geriatric health care advocate into the classroom.

"I enjoyed the opportunity to mentor interns during my time at APALC and serving as an adviser to students who wanted to do social work full time. It was also during that time that I realized I really missed teaching," said Kao, whose first stint as an educator was teaching at a sixth-grade science camp in the San Bernardino Mountains shortly after earning his bachelor's degree in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley.

Kao also holds a doctorate and master's degree in social work from USC and UCLA, respectively, and earned a graduate certificate in geographic information science from USC.

"I'm really interested in geographic information systems, and use GIS mapping and spatial analysis to explore the accessibility of health services for aging minorities," said Kao. "Southern California is actually an interesting region for this type of research as, in many areas, your basic infrastructures: shopping centers, public transportation, financial institutions, emergency services, etc., are so spread out, making it a huge challenge for older adults to remain in their homes as they age."

The Hacienda Heights native is happy to be back in California after spending three and a half years as an assistant professor at the University of Houston. Kao now holds a visiting research professor appointment at UH.

"I moved my family back to California to be close to my aging parents. They're part of this aging community that I'm researching and teaching my students about, so I'm directly impacted seeing my parents age."

This spring, Kao is teaching research and a course that focuses on communities, program planning and organizational leadership.

Tags:  Academics & Research