homepage logo

Students, elderly break down barriers between generations

By Staff | Mar 30, 2018

Vanessa McGuigan/Chronicle Members of Shepherdstown Area Independent Living and students in Shepherd University’s Psychology of Aging class gather to discuss intergenerational differences last week.

It may not be a stretch for college students to imagine being married with a family and a career, but few think of growing old. The younger generation often associates growing old with loss-loss of loved ones, loss of mobility and loss of health and faculties. These are concepts that seem foreign and wholly separate from current reality for students.

Conversely, the older generations often views teens and college students as immature, rebellious and inexperienced, thereby justifying a condescending attitude toward them.

In other words, ageism is alive and well, and just as prevalent as racism and sexism, but with the detriment of being much more socially acceptable.

Both sides of the issue went head to head last week as members of Shepherdstown Area Independent Living and students from Shepherd’s Psychology of Aging class got to know one another for an annual intergenerational study. More than 40 people were present for the discussion.

“This conversation is relevant because you students are the future old,” said SAIL President Carolyn Rodis, who facilitated the discussion. “You’re looking in the mirror of where you might be in 40 years or more.”

Shepherd University’s Lifelong Learning, program, which was initiated by SAIL, helped orchestrate this event. Lifelong Learning provides a means of continuing education for the mature community that wishes to engage in stimulating discussion in an academic setting.

For the first part of the exercise, attendees participated in word association, calling out what came to mind as certain words like “rocking chair,” “piercings,” “tattoos,” “wrinkles” and “teenagers” were called out. Some of the responses were aligned with stereotypes, as expected, but other answers were a surprise. Some of the older generation referred to tattoos and piercings as art and individual expression, while some of the college students used the words “reckless” and “rebellious” with regard to teenagers and young people.

Some of the SAIL members commented that a strong sense of community and opportunity for old and young to gather together is critical to overcoming ageist mentality, citing that in the past, many generations lived under one roof and provided and excellent opportunity for understanding. At the same time, the older ones acknowledged “colluding” with ageist thinking by using terms like “senior moment” or referring to hairstyles or clothing as “not age-appropriate”.

The most heated topic of discussion among the two groups was how to be addressed by a stranger. Several of the older women said it’s demeaning to be called “sweetie” or “honey” when being addressed by someone they don’t know. Some of the younger participants disagreed, saying they were raised with those words as terms of respect or endearment, and that others should consider younger people’s upbringings before dismissing them as disrespectful.

The students then moved on to individual interviews to gather informal data on hypotheses they’d made regarding aging.

The topics varied from music and texting to video game preferences, but also ran deep, dealing with subjects like perceptions of being a burden and discrimination.

Tyler Dotson, a senior sociology major, had the topic of “How do seniors citizens spend their free time and do their choices affect their degree of loneliness?” His hypothesis was that retirees who are single and who don’t have grandchildren who are local to them will have a higher degree of loneliness.

“Even if they don’t have family locally, they are going above and beyond to make friends in a social environment,” Dotson said of his findings. “That is their social support system. Everyone I’ve asked so far says they have a rock-solid support system.”

However, Dotson, along with other students, recognized that the Shepherdstown group could be an anomaly, not a typical sampling of senior citizens. Overall, Shepherdstown residents tend to be well-educated, well-traveled, active, progressive and affluent.

The two groups concluded their discussion by expressing feelings of gratitude toward one another. The older group said they were impressed with the depth of thought and perception the younger generation had, and the college students said they appreciated how open-minded and encouraging the older folks were. Both groups said they regretted that they didn’t have more time to spend together.

“My goal is normalize the entire lifespan,” said Rodis. “It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different. So be who you are at whatever age you are.”