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Yearlong Project Builds Bridges between Fisher Students, Senior Citizens

June 6, 2018

During the 2018-2019 academic year, undergraduate students at St. John Fisher College will swap their life stories, play competitive brain games, and track their daily fitness and health goals, but they won’t be talking to each other. Instead, the Fisher students will be building bonds with senior citizens who volunteer with The Community Place of Rochester, thanks to a collaboration between two professors in the sociology and biology departments.

Students in Dr. Jonathan Millen's Science of Aging course work with seniors from the St. John's Home.

Dr. Marta Rodriguez-Galan, associate professor and director of the gerontology program, and Dr. Jonathan Millen, visiting assistant professor, created a new, two-semester project, Bridges Across Generations: Intergenerational Connections through Biology and Sociology, to longitudinally address the needs of low-income seniors in Rochester’s EMMA-Beechwood neighborhood.

The project is made possible through a $9,353 grant from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), secured in collaboration with the College’s Office of Sponsored Programs. Fisher was one of 22 institutions across the nation to receive funding to implement a CIC/AARP Foundation Intergenerational Connections: Students Serving Older Adults project. The one-year grant program was launched with support from the AARP Foundation in 2017 to encourage colleges to create or extend programs in which students help low-income older adults (ages 50 and older) address their key needs. CIC officials praised Fisher’s project for addressing several of the AARP Foundation’s priority areas, which include hunger, housing, social isolation, and income generation.

Marta Rodriguez-Galan

In the fall semester, students in Rodriguez-Galan’s Aging and the Life Course will approach aging from a sociological perspective through classroom learning and small group discussions with seniors at The Community Place of Greater Rochester (CPGR). An integral part of the northeast Rochester community for more than 100 years, CPGR helps families meet their basic needs, promotes health, wellness, and education, enhances personal and social development, improves literacy, and builds community. Approximately 10,000 individuals annually benefit from CPGR’s programs and services.

During the discussions, students and seniors will explore topics including ageism, family, intergenerational relationships, peer networks, health and health care, end of life issues, religion, and spirituality, among other topics. By the end of the semester, students will have written an elder experience narrative from ethnographic interviews with the seniors.

While the narrative provides a tangible product, Rodriguez-Galan said there are many benefits to the course, which she has run in different variations since 2010.

“Students are able to see the application of what they are studying and they build a personal connection with someone; it really enhances their learning,” she explained. “It also introduces students to a field – working with the aging – that they might not have considered before taking the course.”

In the spring, Rodriguez-Galan will hand off the elder experience narratives to Millen, whose students will collaborate with the seniors to create personalized health longevity plans.

Jonathan Millen

In Millen’s course, Science of Aging, students work with the seniors to complete games that offer biomarkers of longevity (such as grip strength, flexibility, or fine motor control) with segmented information on body fat and muscle mass derived from an analyzer. Students also interview the seniors to learn what their health goals and desires are as they age.

Data in hand, students then consult with peer-reviewed literature on healthy aging and effective interventions to prevent decline to create a personalized plan for each senior based on activities that can be realistically implemented and will accomplish their goals.

“The main challenge for the students is to identify the correct interventions to provide the greatest benefit to the seniors,” said Millen. “Aging is such an individualist experience, so it’s important that the students work closely with the seniors to design the plans.”

This is where the course collaboration is especially helpful, Millen said, because his students will have access to the narratives created by Rodriguez-Galan’s class.

“We can go in earlier with better information to help the seniors improve their lives with age; help them be healthier for longer in their lives,” he said, noting that future classes will revisit the seniors to track their progress at three month, then one year, intervals.

In turn, his students—who will help improve not just the physical, but cognitive abilities of the seniors—may be able to increase their memory recall and create an even more robust narrative.

To ensure a smooth collaboration between the two courses, four Fisher students will work as course assistants, who will identify key integration points between the two classes. They will also create a Bridges Across Generations Manual, which will provide detailed instructions on creating yearlong engagements with students and seniors that will maximize their health span and preserve their life experiences for future generations. Rodriguez-Galan and Millen both hope this course can be a replicable, sustainable course with the manual offering background and training components for future use.

“Outreach to our senior communities is a vital mission of the College,” Millen said. “This project allows our students to develop close relationships with seniors, while providing an avenue for them to share their knowledge of aging and longevity—learned here at Fisher—to produce a positive impact on the senior community.”