Before the students sat down to talk with the older adults, both sides were apprehensive.
What would they talk about? Would they be so far apart in beliefs and life lessons that they’d be unable to understand the other’s point of view? Was true communication even possible?
“There’s this perception—a false perception—on each side that the other side won’t be receptive,” said Dr. Jill Shelton, UC Foundation associate professor and coordinator of the Master of Psychological Science program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“Many students will say, ‘I think we’re not going to have anything in common. I don’t think they’re going to understand me.’”
Discovering whether that was true was one of the goals of the research project conducted by Shelton and Dr. Ruth Walker, assistant professor in psychology, for their “Psychology of Aging” course.
While Shelton was on professional development leave in fall semester 2022, she analyzed data gathered through conversations between students and older adults, which took place in summer and fall semesters 2021 and fall semester 2022.
The older adults ranged in age from 57 to 94. The students were ages 18 to 29 and ranged from first-year students to college seniors.
Five separate conversations were held, and students were given a set of questions to ask. Among them were:
- Describe what you currently do with your time that is important to you.
- If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do? How would you want to be remembered?
- What contributions do you want to make to the world?
- What is your current purpose in life?
Walker said that the questions help break the ice and lead the conversation in an effective direction.
“You can’t just put an older adult and a younger adult in a room and think magic’s going to happen because it doesn’t happen,” she said. “That’s where the conversation guides make it meaningful and where they’re able to find a lot more in common because we’re asking them big-picture questions.”
Morgan Robinson, a UTC graduate student in the Master of Psychological Science program, is writing her master’s thesis on the findings collected during the conversations.
“Within the psychological science master’s program, we’re looking for something to keep students engaged in the course, to make the course more meaningful to them and more meaningful to their everyday life,” she said.
“But certainly another focus of my thesis is how this is affecting students’ perceptions of older adults, their perceptions of themselves and their personal goals,” said Robinson.
Shelton said the conversations worked both ways, benefitting students and older adults.
“For example, when we talk about aging in the workplace, what does that mean? How that’s going to help you whenever you start a new job? You’re going to have senior employees who are more knowledgeable and have skills they can transfer to you,” she said.
“On the other side of the coin, older adults can also benefit from the younger adults who come into the workplace and give them insight into what’s going on in their culture. Maybe they have knowledge of different skills, maybe some kind of new technology that they can teach.”
At the end of the research project, students had to write an essay reflecting on their conversations and what they learned. Their thoughts had turned 180 degrees from their first ones, Shelton said.
“I see them come from, ‘I think they’re going to be judgmental. I don’t think they’re going to understand me’ to ‘I’ll cherish this experience for the rest of my life.’”