This Boston Firefighter Wants to Help the Elderly—So He’s Becoming a Social Worker, Too

With skills he’s learned through BU’s CADER program, Abdul Jabbar Muhammad is earning an MSW

Photo: Abdul Jabbar Muhammad with a fellow veteran in their formal dress--all blacks and a white hat. They smile for the photo, shoulder to shoulder.

Abdul Jabbar Muhammad (SSW’25) (left), a 20-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department, has worked within its investigation and enforcement task force for the last decade, where he is often called to perform wellness checks on the city’s aging and elderly residents. Now he’s earning a master’s degree in social work at BU’s School of Social Work to help him better assist the local residents he comes in contact with. Photo courtesy of Muhammad

School of Social Work

This Boston Firefighter Wants to Help the Elderly—So He’s Becoming a Social Worker, Too

With skills he’s learned through BU’s CADER program, Abdul Jabbar Muhammad is earning an MSW

February 5, 2024
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As a firefighter, Abdul Jabbar Muhammad often finds himself at the homes of aging and elderly Bostonians. He and his fellow City of Boston firefighters are called to perform wellness checks by neighbors who haven’t seen them for some time. More often than not, these residents would open their doors to reveal squalid or dangerous living conditions—a phenomenon that increased during the isolating days of the COVID-19 pandemic and that continues to be a problem. 

Muhammad (SSW’25), a 20-year veteran of the city’s fire department, has worked within its investigation and enforcement task force for the last decade, and in this capacity he and his colleagues are sent to homes throughout the city, looking for obvious fire risk, in the form of overly cluttered houses or blocked doorways and windows. 

What he’s found, though, far exceeded the blunt capacities of his title, he says. He was sent to enforce fire codes and address violations—but increasingly, he met elderly or otherwise marginalized people who needed someone to listen, and care, about their lives. 

“It is called enforcement, because there are safety issues, but we always had a compassionate approach,” the 55-year-old Muhammad says of his team. “We realized quickly, though, that we needed to find a way to bring therapy sessions or support groups for these calls that we were getting. We were up to about 1,000 inspections, it’s still growing beyond what we can even imagine, and it’s because these folks just keep to themselves. There are mental health needs and support needs beyond what our one team could provide.” 

Searching for training that could bolster his skillset, Muhammad found Boston University’s Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research (CADER), and soon completed three certificate programs it offered: Behavioral Health in Aging, Ethics and Legal Principles, and Core Issues in Aging and Disability. He also took a course called Hoarding Disorder in Older Adults.

“The main focus of the center is to train people who are working with, or on behalf of, older adults in the community,” says Bronwyn Keefe, CADER’s director. “It was created 20 years ago, and there’s still a need for that care that very much still exists, if not more than we originally thought.”

Keefe’s concern isn’t unique to Boston—the US population is aging and older people are living longer than before.

“These are good things: people are living longer, they’re living independently, so our community of older adults is more diverse,” she says. “But [this older population] brings different challenges. How do we create access to services? How do we ensure culturally appropriate interventions and support? Coupled with that is the fact that older adults have pretty high rates of mental health concerns. More and more, the issue is becoming how to help people live independently.”

First responders, such as firefighters and EMTs, Keefe says, tend to be the people through whom these other services funnel, simply because they’re the first to witness what might be an acute situation and the first to connect residents with other offices and social services.

Photo: Abdul Jabbar Muhammad, left, holds a trashbag as he is helping out an elderly individual with maintaining his livelyhood.
In his capacity as a firefighter, Muhammad (left) is sent to enforce fire codes and address violations—but increasingly, he meets elderly or otherwise marginalized people who are suffering from mental health disorders and unsafely cluttered homes. His experience pushed him to complete certificate programs through Boston University’s Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research, and then enroll in SSW’s in-person master’s degree program. Photo courtesy of Muhammad

Just as intended, the CADER program bolstered Muhammad’s tool set when wellness calls come into the station, he says. They also prepared him when those same challenges came home. 

In 2022, it became clear to Muhammad that his mother-in-law needed support. While understandable, her makeshift solutions to minor home repair issues—such as duct-taping her slamming screen door shut—had become a safety concern for Muhammad and his family. Plus, her advanced age meant that she struggled to navigate the (constantly updating) technology in her home, such as the remote control for her TV. 

“We developed manuals for her layout at home: ‘These are the remote controls, this is what they do. These are your favorite channels.’ We installed outdoor cameras for her. We explained how things needed to be done safely. Everything was done with her assistance, and with her buy-in, in her own environment,” Muhammad says. “I was able to use a lot of the program material to provide the family with resources so that they could understand that we’re not abandoning her—we’re actually giving her control of herself and her environment and making her feel valued again.” 

The project was fruitful not just because it enabled Muhammad’s mother-in-law to continue living at home safely, but also because it brought her whole family together to support and care for her, he says. 

He was galvanized by his professional and personal experiences. He says he was more certain than ever that the kind of development he’s gained at BU could—and indeed already was—helping him to more thoroughly assess the lived challenges Boston’s most vulnerable residents face. 

“If you have an understanding of hoarding, or an understanding of elder care, you can walk in the door and quickly grasp the situation and which other resources someone may need,” he says. 

Muhammad wanted to learn more, and still wants to find ways to “plug the gaps” he sometimes sees in municipalities’ siloed approach to services. Firefighters and EMTs respond to these acute calls and try to connect residents with social services or other public health services, but there’s often not a clear pipeline for elderly residents in need. 

To that end, he enrolled in BU’s School of Social Work in-person Master of Social Work program. It’s challenging work, he says, but worthwhile. 

“It’s all about working together, connecting all these services, and having that training, and we can really help people,” Muhammad says. “City employees, family members working together to say to someone [with an elderly family member in need], ‘Here’s a phone number you can call that’s not going to be punitive. We’re not judging. We want to help you to understand that you can be a part of their life, even in these conditions.’”

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This Boston Firefighter Wants to Help the Elderly—So He’s Becoming a Social Worker, Too

  • Molly Callahan

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