In this issue

Facilitating quality contact between young and older adults through the classroom

The author suggests ways to reduce ageist attitudes by having younger adults interact with older adults.

By Gilda Ennis, PhD

As a middle-aged adult and postdoctoral researcher of cognitive aging, I have observed with interest the interaction and communication between young adult research assistants and older adult participants. Generally, older adults have little difficulty conversing and engaging with their younger counterparts, an interaction which they seem to find enjoyable. Many young adults, however, seem more distant, formal and less able to connect. While there are probably multiple reasons for the age differences in communication styles, including a desire by young adult assistants to be professional and respectful, I am concerned that some young adults may adopt a more distant approach because they may have implicit negative or uncertain attitudes about aging or anxiety about interacting with a perceived out-group (“the elderly”) (Bousfield & Hutchison, 2010).

Bringing young adults into quality interactions (i.e., favorable, supportive and positive interpersonal exchanges) with older adults can help young people develop more positive attitudes about aging and perhaps reduce their anxiety about interacting with older people (Allan & Johnson, 2008; Allport, 1954; Bousfield & Hutchison, 2010; Caspi, 1984; Hale, 1998; Meshel & McGlynn, 2004; Schwartz & Simmons, 2001). Such quality contact can be facilitated by innovative classroom assignments and presentations in gerontology and adult development and aging courses.

One innovative approach discussed by McCleary (2014) allowed young adults to hear the experiences of older adults within the setting of a gerontology documentary film festival designed by faculty from the departments of nursing and social work. Students from nursing, social work, psychology and other social science majors were either required to attend (i.e., the festival counted as one class meeting) or were given extra credit for participation. Four documentaries were selected: “Ten More Good Years,” “Young @ Heart,” “Old People Driving” and “Andrew Jenks, Room 335.” Each was discussed once it ended, and discussions were led by faculty, professionals from the gerontology/geriatrics community and men and women from the community aged 70 and over who exemplified healthy aging. Older adults from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community were selected to discuss “Ten More Good Years , ” since it depicted the psychosocial challenges facing older LGBT adults.

Modification of the film festival for the classroom could involve inviting members of the older adult community to discuss the films after they have been watched in the classroom or as an assignment. Older adults could be invited to watch the films with the students in class or they could be provided the films to watch on their own time. Students could be asked to prepare questions about their observations of the older adults in the films and these could be discussed in class before they are presented to the older adult volunteers.

To facilitate face-to-face contact between young and older adults, young adults could be assigned to individually interview an older adult from the community. The older adult also could be asked to design a few questions for the younger adult student to encourage a more mutual interchange between the two. The interview could take place on campus or at a senior center, depending on ease of access for the older adult. With guidance from the professor, the class could work as a group to develop interview questions. Questions could be informed by developmental theories relevant to aging, such as socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 2006). Prior to the interview appointment, students would need to be taught skills and ethics regarding interviewing and the collection of data, and Institutional Review Board approval may need to be sought. Following the interview, students could write a paper reflecting on the content of the interview and how it has changed (or not) their attitudes and beliefs about aging and older adults.

Facilitating quality contact between younger and older adults through classroom activities should help prepare younger adults for service learning activities with older adults, work as research assistants in laboratories studying adult development and professions that serve older people and foster more comfortable exchanges in daily life. My hope is that as young adults hear the experiences, thoughts and emotions of older individuals, they will develop a better understanding of and even empathy for their older counterparts so that communicating and interacting with them will occur with greater ease and effectiveness.

Gilda Ennis received her PhD in psychology from North Carolina State University. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she studies the relationship of health-related variables to cognitive functioning in older adults.


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Allport, G.W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bousfield, C., & Hutchison, P. (2010). Contact, anxiety, and young people's attitudes and behavioral intentions towards the elderly. Educational Gerontology, 36 (6), 451-466. doi:10.1080/03601270903324362

Carstensen, L.L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312 (5782), 1913-1915. doi:10.1126/science.1127488

Caspi, A. (1984). Contact hypothesis and inter-age attitudes: A field study of cross-age contact. Social Psychology Journal, 47, 74-80.

Hale, N. M. (1998). Effects of age and interpersonal contact on stereotyping of the elderly. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 17 (1), 28-47.

McCleary, R. (2013). Using film and intergenerational colearning to enhance knowledge and attitudes toward older adults. Educational Gerontology, 40 (6), 414-426. doi:10.1080/03601277.2013.844034

Meshel, D.S., & McGlynn, R.P. (2004). Intergenerational contact, attitudes, and stereotypes of adolescents and older people. Educational Gerontology, 30 (6), 457-479. doi:10.1080/03601270490445078

Schwartz, L.K., & Simmons, J.P. (2001). Contact quality and attitudes toward the elderly. Educational Gerontology, 27, 127-137.