When Dr. Elizabeth Russell, associate professor of Psychology and director of the Trent Centre for Aging & Society (TCAS), looked at her students’ perception of aging and of older people, she wasn’t surprised that many held negative views. What did surprise her was how willing students were to speak up about their own ageism — once it was revealed to them through her course Psychology of Aging (PSYC 3550H).
“Students tend to view aging and retirement in two polarized ways,” says Professor Russell. “There’s what you see in stereotypical heteronormative pictures, say for a retirement home, of happy, wealthy, and healthy older people, or it’s all doom and gloom and everyone’s depressed or sick. But neither extreme represents the realities of growing older for most Canadians, and this course shows there’s a middle ground. I was impressed by how open students were about their own growth after taking the course, and how much they really cared.”
The impact of a single, lecture-based course focused on aging
The study, the basis for a recent article by Professor Russell in The Conversation, was conducted at both Trent and Cape Breton University, and focused on students’ experiences of their Psychology of Aging courses, taught by Dr. Russell at Trent and Dr. Éric Thériault at Cape Breton University. The results were recently published in the Canadian Journal on Aging, in a paper entitled “Facilitating Age-Conscious Student Development through Lecture-Based Courses on Aging”, co-authored by Prof. Russell, Prof. Thériault, and Amber Colibaba, a Trent University alumna and research coordinator with both TCAS and the Rural Aging Research Program. Prof. Russell also presented the paper at the 2021 Canadian Association on Gerontology conference.
Students participants shared insights into how their perceptions of the older people they encountered in their daily lives shifted through the duration of the course. Prof. Russell says that students came away a greater understanding of the tremendous impact social determinants, such as economic status and access to health care, can have on the lives of older people. As well, some students said that they were determined to advocate for older people in a new way.
As one student participant put it, students taking the course, early on, placed older people either “in the ‘boomer remover’ camp or the "I really like my grandpa’ camp”, but in retrospect, these mean-hearted or benevolent perspectives were viewed equally as harmful and ageist.
“There are different ways that advocacy can happen,” says Prof. Russell. “It doesn’t necessarily mean going into caregiving or into medical fields. The reality of our aging population means that aging must be supported by every industry. Every sector and every person needs to be supportive of older people.”
Opening eyes to the realities of growing older
Amber Colibaba, research coordinator for TCAS and the award-winning Rural Aging Research Program (led by Prof. Russell and Dr. Mark Skinner, dean of Humanities & Social Sciences and founding TCAS director), helped collect data, first via focus groups then through phone interviews as the pandemic necessitated a shift away from in-person research. As a young researcher herself (and a Trent alumna), she says she related to the experience students had of having their eyes opened to ageism.
“Some students had never really thought much about the realities older adults face, or how aging might affect a specific group, such as the 2SLGBTQ+ community,” says Amber. “And the course had real, practical results. It wasn’t about checking off an ‘I took an aging course’ box, it had real value for students as citizens of the world, gaining more understanding of how they interact with older people.”
The next step of the research project will be to report on quantitative findings from the study. As well, the possibilities for future work on the subject are considerable, particularly given the development of the University-Integrated Seniors Village and Long-Term Care Home at Trent. Prof. Russell says that this exciting new development will make it possible to expand the course into the realm of hands-on, experiential learning in her Psychology of Aging course and in others, providing “the opportunity of a lifetime” for students and older residents to work together on Trent’s campus.