Students visit the elderly, the elderly go to class, in unique UC Berkeley course on aging

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--The only people over 65 that many college students regularly interact with are their grandparents.

But Paola Timiras' Interdisciplinary Studies class at the University of California, Berkeley, seeks to break down the divisions between young and old. Weekly, off campus meetings with the elderly are an integral part of the curriculum, as is the presence in class of about 30 senior citizens.

Timiras, who herself is 75, has a two-fold purpose for teaching this unusual course, "Advances in Aging." She hopes to increase students knowledge of and appreciation for the nation's growing elderly population, and she wants those already advanced in years to better understand their maturing bodies.

The professor emerita of molecular & cell biology added that "it is the duty of the university 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, taught each semester, is open to UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff as well as to members of the community. Community members who attend range from 50 to more than 80 years old and are searching for personal enrichment, not course credit. Supported by funds from the campus's Berkeley Academic Geriatric Resource Program, the class focuses each term on a different topic related to aging. This semester, the subject is mobility and balance. In previous semesters, students have examined cardiovascular health, aging differences between men and women, adaptive systems, geriatric assessment and biotechnology.

Each week, a new lecturer stops by the class to offer his or 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 in the course and even pay their own travel expenses because they believe in its importance."

Hertha Basch, an active 82-year-old from Walnut Creek, takes BART to Berkeley every week for the two-hour-long, Monday afternoon class. She's been making the trip for five years now and doesn't plan to stop any time soon.

"I'm learning a lot," said Basch. "It's been teaching me a lot of new stuff, and I have been applying it to myself and my friends."

Basch and about 30 other senior citizens fill the first few rows of seats of the lecture room in Warren Hall. They are less shy than the younger students and often raise their hands to ask tough questions.

"It's their moment to take advantage of the speakers," said Matt Nitzberg, an American studies student taking the class for a second term. "It's not later down the road. They're getting information that's specific for them because they're probably experiencing those conditions right then and there."

In addition to mandatory class attendance, the students must complete a final project. They either can write a 10-page term paper or participate in a community project where they interact with an elderly person each week, keep a journal about the experience and then present an oral report to the class that blends together their experiences on and off campus.

"This is not a 'show and tell,' but rather a very professional research report which includes overheads and slides," said Trudi Cole, the graduate student instructor for the course who oversees the students' community projects. "The real challenge to the students is to integrate the lectures with their experience. Moreover, they are required to do outside research on the topic of their presentation."

According to Cole, about 22 percent of the students choose to visit someone at a local senior center, nursing facility or clinic. She said the relationships formed are valuable for young and old alike.

"People in these facilities tend to feel isolated," she said. "They have limited contact with the rest of the community and few, if any, opportunities to interact with UC students. They appreciate hearing about what these students are doing, and the students' experience is enhanced by firsthand knowledge of what it means to grow older. Students frequently say, 'I feel like I received more than I gave.'"

Mark Chen, a senior majoring in molecular & cell biology, is spending a second semester in "Advances in Aging." Every Tuesday, he goes to the North Berkeley Senior Center and helps 81-year-old Roberta McCharles sell coffee and pastries to other senior citizens at the 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."

These weekly meetings are much more than homework for Chen - meeting McCharles has changed his life.

"Working with Roberta and senior citizens in general has given me a whole new different perspective on life," he said. "It's made me a better person in that I respect senior citizens so much, not just because of their age but because of how much they know and how much information they can give you."

Chen's experience isn't unique. Many students who visit senior citizens discover that spending time with them isn't always what they expected. Most of these young people don't wind up at bedsides - they join the elderly in regular activities like gardening, shopping, taking walks and doing crafts.

Sometimes, the students share talents and interests with their gray-haired friends. One student played piano at a nursing facility while residents sang along. Another taught yoga to a group of elderly people.

Timiras takes joy in knowing that her course is opening new horizons.

"Sharing knowledge with the young and with the old is a very great pleasure for me," said Timiras. "It's one of the best pleasures I can find in life."

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