In This Issue
By Abby Coats
Researchers in the field of adult development and aging have made extraordinary discoveries over the last forty years. Psychologists have strong evidence that individual differences in development are widespread in adulthood. Yet, stereotypes that all older adults are senile and grumpy abound. How can we spread the word about the importance of our field's findings to a wider audience?
One approach to dispelling stereotypes about aging is Diversity Dialogues. Diversity Dialogues are experiential multicultural training initiatives, often held on college campuses (Howard, 2014). During a Diversity Dialogue, trained facilitators lead participants in structured discussions about personal experiences with multicultural issues. The goal is for participants in the dialogues to learn from and empathize with each other's experiences. In doing so, stereotypes are often challenged, leading to increased acceptance and tolerance.
Students in my Adult Development and Aging course, along with our college's Office of Intercultural Engagement, sponsored a Diversity Dialogue on aging stereotypes. Dialogue participants included faculty, staff, community members, and students. Thus, a wide range of ages were represented. The college provided free lunch to encourage attendance. Each student in my course facilitated a small breakout group of 6-8 participants, and I led the large-group discussions. As participants entered the room, we assigned them to a breakout group so that each group was highly diverse in terms of age and ethnic background.
In preparing for the Diversity Dialogue, my students synthesized many of the research findings they had learned so far in their Adult Development and Aging course. We spent class time brainstorming which aging-related topics they wanted to discuss in their small groups. I encouraged them to think about their own stereotypes of older adults and what topics would elicit discussion to dispel those stereotypes. They decided to focus on cultural differences in respect for elders, memory changes with aging, and happiness levels in adulthood. I then asked the students to find entertaining video clips and cartoons to illustrate the stereotypes related to their chosen topics. The goal was to keep the discussion light-hearted and fun so that participants would feel comfortable sharing their experiences and opinions.
As participants came into the room and got their lunch, a Pepsi Max ad played on the screen. This ad features a young NBA player wearing professional make-up to make him look like an old man. The NBA player starts a game of pick-up basketball with some young men in a city neighborhood. The audience is shocked to see this seemingly elderly gentleman beat all the best neighborhood players. This set the tone for my students to ask their small groups if they had ever experienced a time when they were expected to “act their age.”
To illustrate possible cultural differences in respect for elders, I showed clips from Chinese and American portrayals of older adults. The students then led discussions about how the participants' cultural background affected their views on aging. A participant from China shared that it was customary for elders to choose the name of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. American participants were shocked at the idea of giving elders that much power.
My students then asked their small groups to share experiences of forgetting things and the explanations they had for their forgetfulness. For example, one young college student reported leaving his keys behind on a long trip when he was especially stressed about a breakup and job hunt. An older adult in the group commented that he almost never forgets his keys, because he keeps them in his pocket all the time (even when he is not actively using them). My student pointed out that this was an example of selective optimization with compensation and that older adults sometime develop elaborate strategies to help them manage memory loss.
Finally, students started dialogues in their small groups about what the happiest time of life is. A few participants mentioned that it must be miserable to be old, but by this time, most participants recognized that it greatly depended on the individual. For example, a middle-aged participant shared that he was happiest as a young man, when he started his first job and felt he could accomplish anything. However, another middle-aged participant shared that she was currently the happiest she had ever been, because her children were grown and she had a great deal of freedom and time for fun activities with her husband. My students attempted to relate the participants' diverse stories to research on life satisfaction across adulthood.
Overall, the experience of leading the Diversity Dialogue helped students apply course material to real adults' everyday experiences. Furthermore, we exposed a wide college and community audience to research findings on adult development and aging. We wanted the participants to learn from the discussions, but most importantly, we wanted them to emotionally connect with each other's experiences to break down stereotypes. I would encourage professors to conduct Diversity Dialogues or similar programs on their campuses. There is often funding for this type of event through campus multicultural offices. Students, community members, and faculty can all benefit from dialoguing with one another.
Howard, R. (2014). A CQR study of Diversity Dialogue facilitation on multicultural counseling skill development. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin-Madison.