Intergenerational Exchange Brings Insights about Aging

Intergenerational Exchange Brings Insights about Aging

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In the SESP Adulthood and Aging class, students delve into theories and stages of adult development. However, at an “intergenerational exchange” where they actually hear older people’s stories, their learning truly comes to life.

For five years, assistant professor Gina Logan has been holding intergenerational exchanges between Northwestern undergraduates and residents of The Mather senior living community in Evanston. “It continues to be a highlight for students,” says Logan, a research assistant professor in human development and social policy.

At the most recent event on March 4, students and Mather participants sat in circles of four to six and conversed about their lives — with approximately 24 students and 23 seniors participating. Afterward, students expressed glowing reactions to the experience.

Students reconsider lives
The stories students heard from the seniors not only illustrated their studies but also inspired them to reconsider their lives. For example, Brooke Rischbietch said, “I loved how beautiful life is no matter how old you are. Our conversation motivated me to go out and do wonderful things.”

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Sophomore Jasmine Docal, moved by the “volunteering legacy” of the women that she talked to, expressed a desire to volunteer more herself. Likewise, freshman Cameron Queiro, described by a Mather resident as “the first football player I ever met,” resolved to get out and volunteer more.

Marriage and family relationships were a running theme of the intergenerational conversations. For example, SESP junior Kaitlyn Wallace commented that she enjoyed hearing from a couple with a long-term marriage: “I look forward to finding someone to spend my life with,” she noted.

On the subject of careers, Lauren Hall said that speaking with a resident who had made a career in business made her realize “I really need to think about my future strategically.” From the other side, the senior participants learned of the students’ career expectations and their idealism about the future.

Thinking from a community perspective, junior Leila Green said, “It was great to hear that people enjoy coming on campus, and about the communities mixing in Evanston.”

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Stages brought to life
Logan says the intergenerational exchange provides students with living examples of the meaning of the life stages that they’re reading about for class, such as grandparenthood and retirement. The class also studies the later years as one of Erickson’s stages of ego integration.

From the seniors’ point of view, “the Mather residents report that they love being in touch with students since it gives them a fresh perspective on today’s youth,” says Logan. “It gives them optimism to talk with these young people,” especially since they may not see their grandchildren regularly.

Overall, in Human Development: Adulthood and Aging, students study the psychological, sociological, and biological factors influencing socialization and development from young and middle adulthood through old age. The class considers the influences of family, school and work on the individual.

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Praise from past students
People’s stories not only exemplify these concepts but also may even lead to enduring relationships, since some students stay in touch with the seniors they meet at the exchange. As typical examples of what students learn from the exchange, students from past years have offered these comments:

  • “I had this image in my mind of many elderly people being out of touch and disengaged, and I know that image is inaccurate even from what we’ve discussed in class, but it was refreshing to see that image dispelled in real life.”
  • “I spoke with [a resident] who truly had a fascinating life. … I found her very inspiring. Especially because I am a senior who is about to ‘start my adult life.’ She inspired me to make an impact in whatever it is I’m interested in!”
  • “Hearing about [a resident’s] fascinating life inspires me to go out into the world and make an impact, no matter how small. It was interesting to see the generational differences such as her take on the vast technological advancements, her experiences with gender inequalities and her lessons on parenthood and grandparenthood. This experience added flesh onto the material we’ve been reading and discussing about in class.”
  • “I’m glad I was able to hear a few different perspectives on life from all very interesting people. The main takeaway for me was that there are highs and lows to every life stage, and no matter how old you are you can always have fun.”
  • “I absolutely loved today’s intergenerational exchange! I learned so much from the experience … If you are old and healthy, you can still maintain a wonderful quality of life, and that makes me hopeful for an age that most people dread.”

Read more about the intergeneration exchange in this Chicago Tribune story.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/11/15