On the first day of class, Lorraine DeJong, associate professor of education, asked the students enrolled in her “Intergenerational Learning with Seniors” May Experience course to draw a picture of a 75-year-old.
One student’s drawing showed a man wearing a checkered shirt and Sketcher sneakers. Gary Aten, a member of Furman’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program and a participant in the class, was wearing precisely that.
“He got the way I dress, but not necessarily the way I think,” said Aten. “They picture us sitting and watching TV. I picture us with a suitcase on a cruise ship.”
Understanding the older generation is what the class is all about. In many cases, grandparents are the only perspective students have.
“Our students aren’t around senior citizens enough,” DeJong said. “(The class) gives them a greater appreciation and understanding of the age period. Hopefully, it will give them a more positive view of this generation and reduce some of the negative stereotypes.”
DeJong began offering the intergenerational class a few years ago. She teaches a human development class that covers birth to death but realized that older adulthood was a stage of development that didn’t get enough time during a semester-long course.
In the class, undergraduates and older adults enrolled in the OLLI program study specific issues related to aging, such as nutrition and exercise, work and retirement, learning and leisure, legal and financial concerns, and family relationships. OLLI offers noncredit courses, interest groups, travel and events for senior-adult learners.
Learning together is the perfect way to dispel ageism, DeJong said. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that programs that foster intergenerational contact and teach about the aging process reduced ageism.
“We don’t empathize with people if we don’t know them,” she said.
Susan Rae, associate director of OLLI, said the Furman students and the OLLI members both leave the class with new friends and new impressions of each other’s generation.
“The Furman students are impressed at how active and interesting the retired generation really are, while the OLLI members are pleased with how curious and caring the college students can be,” she said. “The entire class leaves with a laugh or a smile — a win-win for all.”
Judy Aten, who took the course with her husband, Gary, said the experience offered a unique chance to relate to young people.
“We share our years of experience with them and they share their years of inexperience with us,” said Aten’s wife, Judy. “It’s amazing how quickly you can find things in common with the students. It reminds you that they are a lot like we used to be.”
Camilla Bellows ’20 took the class as a first-year student. She said the course made her realize that working with senior adults presented viable and varied career options. She was also surprised by how open the OLLI students were to letting the Furman students into their lives.
“There’s the perception of this big divide, that they want nothing to do with us and we want nothing to do with them, and that’s so far from the truth,” Bellows said.
She and the Atens have developed a deep friendship. They go out to dinner together. When an asthma attack sent Bellows to the emergency room, they went to the hospital and then insisted she spend the night at their house to make sure she was all right. The Atens let another student they met through the class live with them during the summer.
“They’ve been a huge part of my college experience at Furman,” Bellows said. “There is so much we can learn from them, and they can learn from us. It’s a two-way street. We have a lot more in common than people think.”
At the end of the class, DeJong asked students to draw another picture.
“It’s a very different drawing of a 75-year-old at the end,” she said.