“What’s considered a sexual risk for an old person? Not wearing a diaper?”
“How about old people just stop having sex?”
These comments from an Internet social media “discussion” group on older adult AIDS prevention reflect blatant eldercare bias. They are just more of many examples of negative stereotypes about them that are embedded in our society. Not only do they affect older adults who are currently victimized by them, they also impact children and future generations.
A former school principal, I encourage intergenerational experiences between students and older adults to change biased thinking in children and improve quality of life for everyone involved. Without deliberate intervention, children can easily grow up to become the stereotypes they believe. That’s how many older adults became this way. Nursing homes are ideal places for students to visit and share what they are learning in school. Residents welcome students eager to perform their skits, songs, and poetry. Students can display and explain class projects and interview residents in supportive environments. Afterwards, they can mingle with residents and let the magic of intergenerational communication work to everyone’s mutual benefit.
Before any nursing home visits took place with students at my school, we had students participate in several classes on aging and eldercare. These were integrated into the regular school curriculum supporting academic standards. This teaching approach is called service learning. Students completed pre and post surveys related to their nursing home experience. We asked them what their expectations were about nursing homes and the residents who lived there. Fourth graders told us they thought residents would be boring, slow, and nosy, trying to get into their “business.” Several expressed fear and reluctance about being around “old people” in general and especially sick ones. These were only a few of the negative stereotypes they had already internalized about older adults.
Where do children learn these stereotypes? Many learn them from observing and listening to how other people treat aging and older adults. They learn them from the media. Those who have little contact with diverse older adults who can provide them with a well-rounded view of this population are very vulnerable to accepting stereotypes. Intergenerational experiences benefit older adults and children by broadening everyone’s perspective and acceptance of the human family.
Because teachers prepared students well before their nursing home visits, students knew what to expect. If a resident fell asleep or cried, students understood why that was okay. The word “dementia” was added to their vocabulary with relevance and meaning. They were open to the experience of being with the elderly and the challenged. With lists of questions they had created to ask residents about their childhood, teenage, and adult years, students approached residents with open minds that empowered them to confront stereotypes. They took pride in the roles they played in enriching lives.
After they returned to school, students reflected on how the nursing home visit affected them, what they learned, and ways to share that information with others. They were amazed at how their opinions changed when they answered the same survey questions they had answered before their visits. These survey results were illustrated on a graph to share their documented research results with others. They developed a healthier understanding of aging, illness, caregiving, and acceptance of others’ differences. Many of the residents had surprised them with their stories about interesting lives and common concerns expressed by children everywhere.
Students’ visits to nursing homes culminated with written biographies they presented to each nursing home resident at a small party held at the nursing home. Residents were elated to have their life stories recorded and displayed in beautiful booklets students had created for them on computers. With lots of smiles and appreciation, everyone celebrated what they had accomplished together. Positive intergenerational experiences involving young people and older adults are wonderful win-win opportunities.
Frances Shani Parker is an elder care consultant and author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes. She blogs at the Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog.
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