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Resident learned about aging - and young people - in college class

Wichita Presbyterian Manor resident Sharon Chester holds multiple advanced degrees, but last fall she went back to college anyway.

Sharon audited an interdisciplinary seminar about intergenerational aging at Wichita State. Class enrollment was composed of half older adults and half students aged 18-22 in Wichita State’s Honors College.

Working outside class with a small group of college seniors gave Sharon a chance to get to know members of the next generation.

“We got well acquainted, and it was very interesting what the young people had to say,” Sharon said. “I got a sense that there was a lot of concern about their futures, about the economy, and whether they should start their adult life in the same city as their parents.”

Sharon hosted one of the planning sessions in her Westerly apartment, figuring that if they were learning about how seniors live, the young people should see it for themselves.

She served some of the “big, delicious cookies” she’d saved from her lunches.

“I don’t know if it was the place, the people, or the cookies, but they said we should meet here all the time,” she said with a laugh. The group usually lingers for an hour or more after they were finished, just to chat about their lives.

The small-group structure of the aging course is by design, said Louis Medvene, the emeritus professor of psychology at WSU who designed and teaches the intergenerational aging class.

Spending time together outside class helps members of each age group dispel stereotypes they hold about the other.

“The other students repeatedly say, ‘These students are really sharp, they work really hard,’” Louis said.

He designed the course in two parts. The first covers the current biological and psychological research on aging. The second half of the class explores the social policy: what are the consequences of changes in demographics and health outcomes?

These changes present both challenges and opportunities, Louis said.

“There is an increasing number of people over 65 who want to continue working, either in a traditional sense or as a volunteer,” he said. “If we can learn to take advantage of this resource, it will be a society-level kind of change.”

It’s what Louis calls the “aging dividend:” As people live longer, healthier lives, they can contribute to society well into what we traditionally consider retirement years.

Their contributions can certainly extend to college classrooms, Louis said. He estimates there are more than 100 seniors who actively take classes at WSU, where Kansas residents 60 and older may audit courses for free.

For her part, Sharon found her class experience valuable. Not only did she have the chance to get to know younger people, but she also found much of the course content valuable and applicable to her own life.

And validating, too.

“One thing we don’t lose as we get older is wisdom, and all the research points to that,” she said.

She and her fellow seniors shared some of that accrued wisdom with their younger classmates.

“I noticed the elderly students would try to be uplifting with them,” Sharon said. “As older adults, we’ve gone through a lot of life experiences, we’ve managed to go on when things haven’t always worked out.”

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