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Bridging the Gap

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“You don’t typically encounter 18-year-olds who are interested in gerontology. To see it in these students is inspiring.”

ONE OF THE FIRST ASSIGNMENTS in Frontiers in Human Aging, part of a year-long cluster of courses offered to UCLA freshmen, is a reflection on ageism in America. Students discuss negative stereotypes about older adults, from television portrayals of grumpy old men who are set in their ways, to birthday cards that equate getting older with being “over the hill” and worse. Then the students are challenged to examine their own ageist attitudes and stereotypes.

For some, the reflection becomes something of a revelation.

“I didn’t even know ageism was a thing, but I learned that it is,” says Suzannah Henderson, who completed the cluster in June. “It was eye-opening, and that was just the beginning.”

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.

UCLA freshmen learn about aging and older adults - in the classroom, and from the elders themselves.

While many instructors are brought in for guest lectures to cover the vast scope of disciplinary approaches to the study of aging, the cluster’s three core faculty members include two with Fielding School connections: Dr. Paul Hsu (MPH ’03, PhD ’06), adjunct assistant professor in FSPH’s Department of Epidemiology; and Dr. Lené Levy-Storms (MPH ’92, PhD ’98), an associate professor of social welfare in the Luskin School of Public Affairs and geriatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine (DGSOM) at UCLA. Also on the team is Dr. Rita Effros, a DGSOM professor of pathology and laboratory medicine who specializes in immunology.

“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,” Levy-Storms says.

She notes that students are enlightened by the positive aspects of aging, including the wisdom that comes with experience and the increased time older age affords to giving back to society. They also gain a fuller appreciation of their elders through an assignment in which they are required to interview someone about his or her life. “The students tend to forget that older adults were once young,” Levy-Storms says, “or that they will one day be old too.” In addition, students learn about aging at the cellular level, including

what is known and being investigated about the biological aging processes and the potential to manipulate them for better health. Issues are raised about how gender, race, ethnicity and social environment interact with aging. Ethical questions, economic concerns and intergenerational dynamics are explored. Students also learn about aging-relevant policy – from Medicare to the implications of the Affordable Care Act for older adults. Psychological and social elements of aging are discussed, as are the differences between chronological, social and functional age – including successful approaches to remaining mentally, socially and physically engaged later in life.

FSPH faculty member Paul Hsu notes that nearly all of these discussions are guided by public health concepts, including the importance of prevention and health promotion and the role of public health in increasing life expectancy in the U.S. by more than 30 years in the last century. “Many students haven’t really heard about public health before,” Hsu says. “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 also spend meaningful time interacting with older adults in the winter quarter 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. The students complete journals in which they are asked to reflect on their experiences and link them with classroom and book concepts.

The lessons can be poignant. 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 says. “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.”

But 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 recalls. “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 energized, to the point that she is now contemplating enrolling in UCLA’s Gerontology Interdisciplinary Minor and ultimately pursuing a career working with older adults. “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 says. “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 says one of the unstated goals of the year-long cluster is that it will lead to more students like Henderson becoming interested in careers working with older adults or on elder-related issues. “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 says.

The students aren’t the only ones who come away from Frontiers in Human Aging feeling energized. “You don’t typically encounter 18-year-olds who are interested in gerontology,” Hsu observes. “To see it in these students is inspiring.”