Gerontology Warriors

By Rachael Powles ’22, October 28, 2021
IC students making strides at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

Ithaca College students are always looking for ways to apply what the learn in the classroom to the world at large. And few places at IC provide those kinds of opportunities than the Department of Gerontology, where the curriculum emphasizes service-learning and prioritizes giving students practical experiences that enable them to back to their communities.

And the students in Jessica Valdez Taves’s classes — who later became known as the IC Gerontology Warriors — are a shining example.

During the Spring 2021 semester, amidst the coronavirus pandemic and a hybrid learning model, students in Taves’s Memory and the Aging Brain course wanted to find a way to continue the department’s annual participation in the nationwide Walk to End Alzheimer’s in a safe, socially-distanced manner. But they also strove to take the experience a step further.

“I decided to turn this event into an opportunity for students to educate others about brain conditions, while also learning about it themselves and giving back to the community.”

Jessica Valdez Taves, assistant professor of gerontology

“Together, we asked ourselves, ‘what can we do to support older adults during a pandemic?’ That was our underlying for mission for every assignment,” said Taves, who is an assistant professor of gerontology. “I’ve always been passionate about the Alzheimer’s Walk, and I realized we could make this not just a fundraiser, but an education-raiser. I decided to turn this event into an opportunity for students to educate others about brain conditions, while also learning about it themselves and giving back to the community.”

Throughout the semester, as the students studied the psychological and physical impacts of aging on the brain, they also prepared promotional and educational materials for the official walk, which would take place on September 12. Prior to that, however, the class hosted their own on-campus walk in May as their final project, complete with the traditional flags and flowers supplied by the Alzheimer’s Association. A video compilation of the walk was later highlighted in the Alzheimer’s Association’s newsletter.

Shot of leaderboard

The group raised more than $4,000, top marks on the day. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Valdez Taves)

Ryan Griswold ’23, said this first walk was an amazing experience.

“Even though we had masks on, it was nice to feel like we were actually walking with a purpose, all of us working toward change together,” said Griswold.

Another student, Haley Crumlish ’22, echoed this sentiment.

I met students that were fully online students and had great conversations with people I had never met,” Crumlish said. “It was great to see majority of the class show up for the walk, regardless if they were online or in person students and come together for such a great cause. Students even travelled from their hometown and came to join us in the walk.”

But this was not the end for the Gerontology Warriors. When the IC community returned to South Hill in full in the Fall of 2021, the students in Taves’s Introduction to Aging and Human Development course were offered the chance to participate in the September walk as extra credit. The class jumped at the opportunity, and many members of the spring 2021 Memory and the Aging Brain class returned to participate, which grew the team’s ranks to 45. Students invited their families and friends to help with fundraising, leading the IC Gerontology Warriors to become one of the event’s top fundraisers in the Tompkins County Region, raising nearly $4,000 for the study of brain conditions.

“There was a lot of excitement, but you also knew everyone there was most likely touched by someone who was cognitively impaired. But while there was an overtone of the fact these are difficult things, there was also an understanding of all we can accomplish together.”

Jessica Valdez Taves

When the day of the walk arrived, the IC Gerontology Warriors were greeted by nice weather, and the support by the community, a testament to hard work of the students.

“There was a lot of excitement, but you also knew everyone there was most likely touched by someone who was cognitively impaired,” said Taves. “But while there was an overtone of the fact these are difficult things, there was also an understanding of all we can accomplish together.”

And although the walk eventually ended, the Warriors’ work has continued. Griswold was inspired to form his own team, walking on October 15 at an event in Watkins Glen in honor of a family friend.

“It felt so much more personal to be doing this work in honor of someone I knew,” he said.

“Something I learned throughout this process is how beneficial volunteering and fundraising can be ... I think it is so important that all students get the chance to volunteer, whether it is for this cause or not, because you can learn so much about yourself and others in the process.”

Haley Crumlish ’22

Crumlish also hopes to continue working her newfound passion for volunteer work.

Something I learned throughout this process is how beneficial volunteering and fundraising can be,” said Crumlish. “I had volunteered a few times in high school, but I did not get as involved as I did with the IC Gerontology Warriors. I think it is so important that all students get the chance to volunteer, whether it is for this cause or not, because you can learn so much about yourself and others in the process.”

Since the event, the Alzheimer’s Association has appointed the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute a Community Partner, meaning future students will be working directly with Tompkins Country authorities to better support the needs of older adults in the community, such as those at the at Longview senior care community, which has had a partnership with the college for more than two decades.

It’s the latest example of how the IC faculty and students are working tirelessly to embody the college’s strategic plan goal of being a private college serving a public good.

Taves is proud of all her students have accomplished and hopes this is the beginning of the de-stigmatization of aging and cognition issues.

“So many of us are impacted by brain conditions, and the Alzheimer’s Association is constantly looking for ways to help and support others,” she said. “I hope the Ithaca College community can now see all that work in motion.”