Aging Grace

By Charles McKenzie, December 6, 2019
IC honored for programs that foster intergenerational learning and community.

This year, Ithaca College was officially designated an Age-Friendly University (AFU), joining a worldwide network of 50 pioneering institutions that have proven commitments to being age-friendly in their programs and policies.

The Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE) and its members endorse 10 principles of an age-friendly institution, created by an international, interdisciplinary team convened by Dublin City University to identify the distinctive ways higher education institutions can help respond to the needs of aging populations.

Age-Friendly University logo

Last spring, faculty in IC’s Gerontology Department took a look at the 10 principles to evaluate how the college was doing.

“We realized that we were already doing so many of these things, and we had a number of initiatives underway, so that was when we decided we wanted to pursue it,” said Elizabeth Bergman, associate professor and chair of gerontology. Very quickly, President Shirley M. Collado declared IC’s endorsement of the principles.

Offices and departments all over campus have ongoing programs that are aging-related. For example, IC’s Department of Exercise Science has a weeks-long exercise program working with students in the Robert R. Colbert Sr. Wellness Clinic to help residents of Longview, a retirement and assisted living facility just across the street from IC’s campus.

“It's neat to see students form meaningful friendships with older people. They might interact for a class-related project or at one of our events and then end up forming a friendship that endures through their time here, and sometimes beyond.”

Elizabeth Bergman, Chair of the Department of Gerontology

Coordinated for many years by IC professor Christine Pogorzala, who retired this year, Longview’s partnership just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Longview residents can take classes at the college and take part in social activities such as last month’s annual Intergenerational Harvest Moon Dance and the spring’s Intergenerational Prom, open to all ages from all over the county. Sponsored by the Aging and Gerontological Education Society (AGES) and the Project Generations student organizations, the dances are attended by community members of all ages, from centenarians to toddlers.

“It's neat to see students form meaningful friendships with older people. They might interact for a class-related project or at one of our events or something and then end up forming a friendship that endures through their time here, and sometimes beyond,” Bergman said.

IC’s Gerontology Institute and gerontology department have long-standing relationships with a number of organizations elsewhere in Ithaca and Tompkins County. Students also go to McGraw House and Titus Towers, which are both high-rise apartment buildings for older adults, as well as Lifelong, a senior center downtown that acts as a hub for a wide variety of activities that promote continued mental, physical and creative growth.

Almost all of IC’s gerontology courses have an experiential component where students go out into the community to work with older adults, but even in other programs like occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology, students are out in the community. IC’s Center for Life Skills, for example, offers rehabilitative services to community members. Even in areas like the Department of History, students research and record life experiences of older members of the community.

In fact, all five schools at the college have been involved in one way or another with Longview. IC is also working to examine its facilities and policies to facilitate participation of all ages on campus.

“It’s not just about older people but people of all ages,” Bergman said. “We’re trying to break down any barriers that exist to having a more intergenerational feel to our campus.”

One of the objectives of the Ithaca Forever strategic plan is to become a global destination for a multi-generational student body.

Even as a child, Bergman experienced the power of intergenerational interactions. She belonged to a Suzuki violin ensemble that frequently performed at retirement communities, but she still had not considered gerontology as a career path until late in her bachelor’s program. She went on to receive a master’s degree in gerontology and a PhD in aging studies. In November, she was recognized as a 2019 Fellow by the prestigious Gerontological Society of America, one of just three from the AGHE. 

IC’s efforts in the community have helped foster a more general ethos in Ithaca and Tompkins County, both of which the AARP named Age-Friendly Communities as part of a World Health Organization initiative to help municipalities prepare for rapid population aging. It’s a kind of parallel track to IC’s age-friendly designation.

a man and a woman dance

A student dances with Alfred DiGiacamo, who turned 97 this fall, at the Intergenerational Harvest Moon Dance. (Photo by Charles McKenzie/Ithaca College)

Bergman says college students often start with certain myths and stereotypes of older people, many of them negative, even though they themselves quickly point out that their own grandparents don’t fall into those categories.

“They say their own grandparents are fantastic and cool,” she said.

Once the students begin interacting more with a variety of older people, they realize that what makes grandma special makes a lot of people her age special too.

“Their eyes really open to the diversity of the older adult population and realize that there's far more than the stereotypes that we see reinforced in popular culture.”

The 10 principles of an Age-Friendly University

1. To encourage the participation of older adults in all the core activities of the university, including educational and research programs.

2. To promote personal and career development in the second half of life and to support those who wish to pursue "second careers."

3. To recognize the range of educational needs of older adults (from those who were early school-leavers through to those who wish to pursue advanced degrees).

4. To promote intergenerational learning to facilitate the reciprocal sharing of expertise between learners of all ages.

5. To widen access to online educational opportunities for older adults to ensure a diversity of routes to participation.

6. To ensure that the university's research agenda is informed by the needs of an aging society and to promote public discourse on how higher education can better respond to the varied interests and needs of older adults.

7. To increase the understanding of students of the longevity dividend and the increasing complexity and richness that aging brings to our society.

8. To enhance access for older adults to the university's range of health and wellness programs and its arts and cultural activities.

9. To engage actively with the university's own retired community.

10. To ensure regular dialogue with organizations representing the interests of the aging population.