Older adults in senior living are not just residents, customers, or patients. They are also experts on aging. They have the capacity to transform misassumptions and stereotypes of aging into sensitive recognition of the uniqueness of each person. The collective wisdom they possess and the stories they can share provide an effective vehicle for teaching interested students. And these experts have opinions on what is important for potential aging services professionals and gerontologists to know about aging.

In the spring 2018 semester, Loyola University of Chicago Social Work students were offered a new course on aging that leveraged the lived experience and expertise of residents of The Mather, a Life Plan Community in neighboring Evanston, IL. This intergenerational course was co-designed and co-taught by The Mather residents and a Loyola professor. Its aim was to challenge stereotypes and false assumptions held by those who have little direct contact with older people and to provide older adults the opportunity to share their lived expertise on topics they consider of greatest importance.

The program was based on a course designed by the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in collaboration with St. John’s by the Lake retirement community, and included a research component to evaluate the course’s potentially unique impact on students. In 2016, this course was a recipient of a Mather LifeWays Promising Practices Award. After bestowing this award, Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging decided to replicate the course in a Mather LifeWays community and to evaluate the impact of the course on students in a research study.

Nine resident-instructors from The Mather represented a variety of previous work and personal backgrounds. They participated in several planning meetings with the professor and senior researcher from Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging to design the course content. They settled on topics such as the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of aging; life transitions; end of life; and ageism and age stereotypes. While class sessions were organized around specific themes, it was the resident co-teachers who interpreted those topics through retelling their lived experiences. Each resident-teacher acted as lead discussant for one or two weeks, guiding the class through the narratives of their lives. Their stories contained recalled details of their pasts and were suffused with the emotional depth and reflections on life granted to the elderly. Each week the class was supplemented with questions, readings, and experiential exercises provided by the professor. Conversations occurred within the group as a whole, as well as in more intimate small groups.

The course was considered a success by all parties involved, with hopes it would be offered again. Two key factors contributed to its success: the use of storytelling as a teaching format and the opportunity for meaningful interaction with older adults, resulting in the development of unanticipated relationships. In interviews following the course, the students emphasized that the ability to engage in conversation and exchange with the resident-instructors made the content of the course much more impactful than learning from reading scholarly material or written first-person accounts ever would have. One student described it:

I think it’s one thing to provide everybody with theories and a case study, but even in a case study you can’t ask follow-up questions…and you can’t read their body language. You can’t sense the feeling, like listening to [a resident-instructor] tell her story you felt the struggle. Just having the person there, to either follow up and gain context or understand the emotional reaction is really important.

Students also emphasized the role of the course in dispelling aging-related stereotypes, and some expressed a new interest in pursuing gerontology or an aging focus. All felt that this course was a unique, powerful complement to more typical lecture-based courses. One student noted that the intergenerational aspect of the course, “lent a depth that I didn’t anticipate.”

Group discussion and interviews also revealed that beyond the educational content, the course provided much more to all participants, through the creation of strong relationships between the resident-instructors and students—which both groups wanted to maintain following the conclusion of the course. As one student said:

I think that this is a course that has a profound effect on students but also residents… something that’s remarkable … the resident teachers are something I will never forget. I think it was definitely a highlight of my undergraduate career.

It is important that these experiences for residents be recognized for the value they bring to older participants as well as the students. This course provided value, purpose, and renewed meaning for the resident-teachers. The lucky students who witnessed their stories may find themselves altering the assumptions they make of older adulthood and transforming their own futures through the lessons they learned.

Marcia Spira, PhD, LCSW, a professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago, specializes in issues of aging and was the university instructor for the course described above. Roscoe Nicholson is a Senior Research Associate at Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging and conducted a research study on the impact of the course described above.