Thirty-one social work students began a semester-long service project Tuesday that aims to break down stereotypes of the elderly population.
Associate professor Harriet Cohen’s Human Behavior in the Social Environment II class will volunteer at Casa, Inc., a Catholic Charities housing facility for low-income elderly or disabled people. Pairs of students will get to know a resident and create a multimedia presentation of the resident’s life.
“As the demographics change and we have more older adults, social workers are not being trained to work with that population,” Cohen said. “There have been a number of efforts to increase the educational opportunities that students have to see that it’s not just this outward person with wrinkled skin and white hair, but someone who has a story.”
Casa houses residents 62 years of age or older with annual incomes of less than $23,950, according to the Fort Worth chapter’s website. As rent, the residents pay 30 percent of their adjusted annual income, which incorporates their medical expenses and assets.
Cohen said she chose Casa because it serves older adults who are still involved in the community and able to live independently. She wanted the students to focus on conversation, not on physical assistance.
“The stereotype is old, frail and dementia, so exposing students to older adults who were still active, even if they had some limitations, changed their attitudes about working with older adults,” Cohen said. “They could teach the older adults, and the older adults had things to teach them.”
Cohen requires the students to video record their sessions to use them in their final projects. She said students generally choose to make videos or PowerPoint presentations that tell about the resident’s origins, families, careers and challenges.
Sophomore social work major Catherine Dooley said she had a lot in common with her 79-year-old woman resident. The woman claimed to have always been a prankster and still plays pranks on other Casa residents.
“So far, something that I have learned from this experience is that my own perceptions and ideas of older adults and working with them has been wrong,” Dooley said.
Dooley described some of the stereotypes as “all old people go to bed early, knit all the time and don’t exercise.” However, she said the class has taught her that older adults need to continue working out, and some want to stay sexually active.
“For the final project, I think my partner and I will create a movie focusing on our Casa partner’s values, attitudes and beliefs, and how those are important to her at her current stage of life and have been in the past,” Dooley said.
Cohen requires the student pairs to visit Casa twice by themselves. She plans for the whole class to visit again in April to give CDs of their presentations to the residents.
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