Engagement with the Aging Community
By Eric Cerino, MS, and Jennifer Bellingtier, PhD
As adult development and aging researchers, disseminating our work and establishing community connections with the aging population present opportunities for mutual benefit. Learning the latest scientific discoveries in aging sciences and their implications for health and well-being can promote a healthier and socially involved life for older adults. Researchers can gain insight from older adults' life experiences that can help shape and inform research questions and interpret findings. Further, delivering content that is approachable to audiences from any background (e.g., removing jargon) and efficiently presenting big picture takeaways are vital for effectively distributing our work and professional development (e.g., applying for grant funding). Here we discuss the value of engagement with the aging community and ways in which student researchers, emerging academics and established professionals can work toward overcoming institutional silos and foster community integration in research, curricula and service.
Host Conferences, Workshops and Publicly Available Presentations
Inviting community members to campus for educational presentations can stimulate an exchange of valuable insights and establish a community presence in the work we do as researchers. Oregon State University (OSU)'s Annual Gerontology Conference in Corvallis, Oregon, invites leading geriatric professionals from multiple disciplines to present current information to a widespread audience of community members, health and human services specialists and academics. In addition to presentations, vendor tables for local senior centers, care facilities and other resources help community attendees stay well informed of what is available to them.
North Carolina State University (NCSU) hosted its first Aging and the Environment Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, last year. Panel presentations featured the work of university researchers from multiple disciplines whose work addresses issues of aging and the environment (e.g., psychology, sociology, design) and the work of community organizations who actively work to create environments that promote healthy aging (e.g., care villages, home renovators, and co-housing communities). The conference culminated with a networking reception where researchers, students, community partners and older adults shared their knowledge, concerns and insights with each other. For Jennifer, organizing the conference allowed her to learn more about applications for her research, and the diversity of perspectives in the aging community.
Hosting regular meetings/workshops and publicly available lectures can also help incorporate the aging community into our work and offer services to those who need it most. For example, OSU's ElderCare Connections, a monthly meeting for OSU students, faculty and staff who have taken on the role of being a caregiver for their aging loved ones, offers resources and support during a 45-minute lunch break. The caregivers benefit from the sense of community, safe space to share experiences and information presented. Graduate students and emerging professionals gain experience presenting material for caregivers and an appreciation for the value of disseminating evidence-based research to the community. Eric learned ways to apply his graduate work to the community after discussions with caregivers that stemmed from his presentations on aging and memory and ways in which geron-technologies can prevent caregiver burden.
NCSU is home to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), one of a networkof university-housed institutes devoted to providing lectures, short-courses and other educational opportunities to those fifty and older. Connecting with one of these institutes can provide the opportunity to present your work and dialogue with community members. You may find OLLI audiences provide unique insights on your research questions and may be interested in participating in your future studies.
Reach Out to Community Centers
In addition to hosting various events, we also suggest reaching out to local community centers, care facilities and businesses/organizations to see if they are interested in having an informational session or research presentation. Senior centers frequently hold health fairs that can be an appropriate outlet for delivering evidence-based material to community members in a convenient and approachable manner. Another way to reach out to the community is to offer free presentations to senior center members or at a local library (e.g., ways to promote and maintain cognitive engagement). These presentations give researchers the opportunity to practice communicating the benefits of aging research to those outside of academia. The presentation topic and specific audience may differ based on particular research interests, but the mutual benefit from establishing these community ties can be universally shared.
Incorporate Service Learning Projects in Your Classes
Professors teaching adult development and aging courses can incorporate service learning projects that immerse students in the aging community and offer applied learning opportunities. There are myriad ways to customize service learning to course topics, class interests and available resources/connections. Consider contacting nearby senior centers or care facilities to see if they would be interested in working with you and if students could visit. For many undergraduate students beginning to familiarize themselves with course content, engaging with older adults in senior centers or assisted living facilities could provide application of course content to real life experience (in addition to personal/family experiences). Service learning projects also foster intergenerational communication and support a more integrated community. They may also encourage more students to continue studying aging.
Other ways to engage with the aging community may be found through volunteerism. For example, organizations like the Alzheimer's Association have fundraisers that utilize volunteer planning committees (e.g., Walk to End Alzheimer's). These committees offer an excellent opportunity to unite the aging community, their families, health care professionals and researchers under common goals. Volunteering for causes you believe in, or for what perhaps brought you into adult development and aging research, offers the valuable opportunity to instill passion and meaningful application to your work.
This list of ways to engage with the aging community is by no means comprehensive, but we hope it offers some useful examples to experiment with in your labs, programs, and institutions. We encourage you to take a moment this summer and consider how you can engage with the aging community near you.
Eric S. Cerino is a doctoral student in the Human Development and Family Studies program at Oregon State University. Eric works under Dr. Karen Hooker and Dr. Robert Stawski studying relationships between psychosocial factors and cognition in older adulthood. His current research interests focus on the ways in which affect and personality impact behavioral and subjective indicators of cognitive aging.
Jennifer A. Bellingtier graduated in May from the Lifespan Developmental Psychology doctoral program at North Carolina State University. She serves as the graduate student representative for the Division 20 executive board. This fall she will begin a postdoc at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. Her research interests focus on individuals' perceptions of their own aging and how those perceptions influence daily well-being.