Suzannah Henderson, UCLA class of 2019, took the course “Frontiers in Human Aging” when she was a freshman. One assignment had her reflect on ageism in America, including negative stereotypes— from the grumpy old men portrayed on TV to the obnoxious birthday cards that poke fun at dotty old folks.
For Henderson, who had not thought about ageism before, reflection turned into revelation. “I didn’t even know ageism was a thing, but I learned that it is,” she said. “It was eye-opening, and that was just the beginning.”
UCLA freshmen learn about aging and older adults in the classroom and from the elders themselves. “Frontiers in Human Aging” is one of 10 cluster courses offered to freshmen that explore major issues.
Each year, approximately 120 UCLA freshmen journey through “Frontiers in Human Aging,” learning about growing old from multiple vantage points —– biology, psychology, sociology, ethics, policy and public health — through lessons delivered by a wide-ranging group of faculty experts and from older adults themselves, via hands-on community service experiences.
“Our goal is to convey to students the concept of aging as a lifelong phenomenon, and to show students that there are multiple dimensions to the aging process, which is inherently interdisciplinary,” said Lené Levy-Storms, an associate professor of social welfare and geriatrics.
Students learn that there are positive aspects of aging, such as the wisdom that comes with experience. The first-year students get close to the subject matter by interviewing elders about their lives.
“The students tend to forget that older adults were once young,” Levy-Storms said, “or that they will one day be old too.”
Students also explore aging-related biology, policy issues and ethical questions that incorporate economic concerns, healthcare and intergenerational dynamics. Many discussions focus on public health concepts, including the prevention policies and health promotions that increased life expectancy in the United States throughout the last century.
“Many students haven’t really heard about public health before,” says Paul Hsu, adjunct assistant professor in epidemiology. “I try to introduce them to what it means to treat populations as opposed to individuals, including promoting immunizations and other strategies as opposed to waiting for people to get sick.”
Students spend meaningful time interacting with older adults through a five-week, service-learning experience in which they are placed in agencies that serve elders, such as senior centers, assisted-living facilities and adult day care centers. Henderson spent her service-learning time at a senior living community, interacting with residents who have dementia. She found herself bonding with one older man who reminded her of her grandfather.
“He was a kind, soft-spoken person who would be reading his Bible when I came in,” Henderson said. “He was always eager to participate in conversation. He would talk about how he had done track and field when he was younger and how much he loved physical activity.”
Henderson learned that people with dementia commonly experience ups and downs in their cognitive and physical functioning. “One day I came in, and he wasn’t doing well at all,” she recalled. “He tried to stand up after lunch, and his knees buckled and he almost fell. It broke my heart to see someone I had really connected with struggling like that.”
Nonetheless, Henderson came away from her year in the “Frontiers in Human Aging” cluster with a new outlook.
“When I was younger I really didn’t think about these things, but in college your perspective broadens, and you begin to become more analytical about the world,” she said. “Now I see older people and realize they are more than just grandparents; they are individuals with a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and life experiences to share.”
Levy-Storms hopes the course will get more students like Henderson interested in careers related to aging. “There is such a need and so many opportunities, whether it’s in public health, medicine, law, policy or any other field you can think of,” she said.
This post was adapted from a story in UCLA Public Health Magazine.