Dr. Hill and students

Putting theory into practice

Wofford psychology students teach and learn from intergenerational interactions

Aging 382
2016-10-24

To simulate the effects of aging, students in Dr. Kara Bopp’s “Adult Development and Aging” psychology class at Wofford College wear glasses that make their vision blurry. They put in earplugs to make hearing harder and wrap Band-aids around their fingers and tape their wrists to simulate arthritis. To complete the experience they put stability collars around their necks to limit mobility, dried peas in their shoes to replicate neuropathy, and cotton balls in their nose to diminish their sense of smell.

“After we alter their sensory and ambulatory abilities, the students attempt the Get Up and Go Test,” says Bopp, referring to a common balance and mobility assessment performed with older adults. “It helps the students realize that their bodies will change. Throughout their lifetimes, older adults suffer the loss of people they love as well as the loss of their physical abilities. Getting a taste of what that loss means helps students feel empathy and forces them to think about their futures in a different way.”

In class, students discuss research in the field on memory and aging. They talk about nutrition, exercise and healthy habits that they can adopt now that will make a difference in 50 years. Bopp considers that information vital, but limited. That’s why she built a practical component into the curriculum.

One assignment involves requiring each student to tour an assisted-living or skilled-nursing facility as if they were choosing care for their parent or grandparent.

“It’s important to get them to think about those very real conversations before they become personal,” says Bopp. “Often students only have the examples of their own older family members. I like to expose them to a diversity of aging experiences.”

Bopp has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with White Oak Estates in Spartanburg to reinforce student learning. For example, during the fall semester her students joined White Oak residents to celebrate Active Aging Week. During one session, older adults sat on a panel answering Wofford student questions about aging.

“We sort of got off track talking about how things have changed in society since we were their age,” says Jan Frances, a retired teacher who has written four books. “We had a captive audience and enjoyed talking with the Wofford students.”
According to Emily Cappelmann ’18, a psychology major from Mount Pleasant, S.C., the White Oak residents talked about what it was like to grow up during World War II and where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. "I realized then that my generation one day will be talking about where we were during 9/11.”

Later in the week Wofford students enjoyed lunch with White Oak residents and shared technology advice. The older adults were asked to bring their laptops, e-readers and smart phones for one-on-one tutorials.

Wofford students fielded a variety of questions: “I do a lot of walking and want to learn how to use Map My Walk?” “My son put me on Facebook, and I want to know how to post a picture of the puzzle I just finished.” “I want to skype my girlfriend.” The Wofford students and older adults enjoyed the experience, and their discussions extended well beyond technology.

“Mr. Osteen wanted me set his laptop to automatically connect to WiFi. Then we downloaded the Walmart App and Netflix," says Sutton Alexander ’18, a psychology major from Rock Hill, S.C. "He was so much fun to talk with. I couldn't believe he was 92 years old.”

Gladys Ballinger, a resident of White Oak for almost 16 years, didn’t need computer help.

“I came to see people I didn’t know before the group discussion on Tuesday. I liked that most of the Wofford students called me by my first name. It made me feel good,” says Ballinger, who’s 86. “When you’re as old as I am, people don’t pay you much attention, but I’m still around and still have something to share.”

For Ballinger that meant sharing a joke a day with the Wofford students.

“The reciprocal benefits of these intergenerational interaction are so important,” says Bopp. “Discussing technology, for instance, gives both older and younger adults a connector, something that leads to conversations and stories, and in Gladys’s case, jokes.”

The “Adult Development and Aging” course is an upper-level elective course often taken by psychology and biology majors. Many students come into the course skeptical.

"The experience made me optimistic about aging," wrote Audra Pack ’17, a psychology major from Sarasota, Fla., in her class journal. "I now know that it is not all dark and dreary and that older adults are capable of having just as much fun, if not more, than young adults. This class has provided me the opportunity to see aspects of aging that I would not have previously noticed and has provided me with the tools I need to help my own family members and myself to lead to, hopefully, a successful aging process."