Breaking Down the Barriers of Age
Unique Interdisciplinary Studies Course Brings Young, Old Together to Study Aging
By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
But in Paola Timiras' interdisciplinary studies class, the everyday divisions between young and old are broken down. Weekly meetings with the elderly are an integral part of the curriculum and about 15 percent of the people who regularly attend lectures are old enough to order from the senior citizens' menu at Denny's.
The 75-year old Timiras has a two-fold goal in this unique course, "Advances in Aging": to increase students' knowledge of and appreciation for the nation's growing elderly population, and to help those already advanced in years understand what's going on in their mature bodies.
Timiras, a professor emerita of molecular and cell biology, also believes it is the university's duty "not only to teach the young people to find a profession but also to help older people continue to stimulate their brains."
The two-unit class is open to Berkeley students, faculty and staff and to members of the community, typically 50 years or older, who take it for personal enrichment instead of course credit. Supported by funds from the Berkeley Academic Geriatric Resource Program, it focuses each term on a different topic related to aging. This semester issues of mobility and balance are front and center. Previous semesters focused on cardiovascular health, aging differences between men and women, adaptive systems, geriatric assessment and biotechnology.
In "Advances in Aging," a guest lecturer each week offers his/her expertise on the semester's topic.
"The lecturers are the best in their field," said Timiras. "They are authors of reference books, excellent clinicians or basic scientists, sociologists, economists and architects. They participate and even pay their own travel expenses because they believe in the course's importance."
Some 30 senior citizens fill the first few rows of the lecture hall. Less shy, as a rule, than the college-age students, senior class members often raise their hands to ask tough questions.
For them, the issues on the table are not "later down the road," noted class participant Matt Nitzberg, an American Studies undergrad. "They're getting information that's specific for them because they're probably experiencing those conditions right then and there."
For their final projects, students may either write a 10-page term paper or participate in a community project where they interact with an elderly person on a weekly basis, keep a journal about their experience and present an oral report relating their community experience to the class curriculum.
"This is not a 'show and tell,' but rather a very professional research report that includes overheads and slides," said graduate student instructor Trudi Cole, who oversees the community project aspect of the class. According to Cole, about a quarter of the students opt to visit someone at a local senior center, nursing facility or clinic.
People in such facilities "have limited contact with the rest of the community and few if any opportunities to interact with UC students," Cole noted. "They appreciate hearing about what students are doing, and the students' experience is enhanced by firsthand knowledge of what it means to grow older," she said. "Students frequently say 'I feel like I received more than I gave.'"
Mark Chen, a senior majoring in molecular and cell biology, has taken the class twice. Every Tuesday, he helps 81-year old Roberta McCharles sell coffee and pastries at the North Berkeley Senior Center's coffee bar. Business isn't exactly booming, so the two of them always have plenty of time to chat.
"I think of him as family and I look forward to his coming every Tuesday," said McCharles. "I'm just fortunate that he's doing this, because I like to be with younger people, not just people my own age."
"Working with Roberta and senior citizens in general has given me a whole new different perspective on life," said Chen. "It's made me a better person, in that I respect senior citizens so much, not just because of their age but just how much they know and how much information they can give you."
Timiras takes joy in the fact that her course opens new horizons for all involved.
"Sharing the knowledge with the young and with the old is a very great pleasure for me," Timiras said. "It's one of the best pleasures that I can find in life."