by Joy Brown
It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students of Meredith Pitt, J.D., to suddenly find their eyesight is blurry, their walking has turned into a slow shuffle, and their ability to stand up from a cozy couch sit has become difficult. They’ve also lost sensitivity in their fingers, and their ability to hear adequately has disappeared.
The experiences are the result of Pitt’s sensory techniques she uses to teach University of Findlay gerontology students what being an older adult can feel like – physically and mentally. At the University’s Occupational Therapy Adaptive Living House at 405 College St., Pitt has students don equipment such as weighted vests, knee braces and gloves to restrict movement and feeling. Goggles mimic vision with cataracts or macular degeneration. Headphones muffle noise. She then has them perform tasks throughout the house, such as sit down and get up from the middle of the couch, and lie down on a bed. Afterward, students walk down the sidewalk to experience outdoor challenges.
Meredith Pitt, J.D.,
Assistant Professor of Gerontology
Ohio Northern University – Juris Doctorate; Bowling Green State University – Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Gerontology; University of Kentucky – Bachelor of Arts
The activities always prove to be an eye-opener, so to speak, for this younger contingent.
“It made me second guess everything. I thought I was going to run into stuff,” said Holly Wilson, a sophomore sonography major who recently went through the sensory exercise.
“It was weird,” said Sydney Berlekamp, a junior majoring in nuclear medicine. “I felt like I had an understanding of the house before, but everything was off” while wearing the gear, she said.
“They (students) understand that not everybody is going to feel out of breath, or have a difficult time walking. But for those who do have issues, it may be because they’ve fallen, and that’s why they’re hesitant to walk,” explained Pitt. “I hope to teach students some empathy, because that’s the whole purpose.”
Transitions & Trajectories
“I love the flow of information that can happen,” said Pitt, whose professional interests have taken her from Better Business Bureau mediation work to case law editing for LexisNexis to UF’s campus teaching gerontology and aging courses. She first earned a Juris Doctorate, and later a Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Gerontology. Being a primary caregiver to her great aunt sparked her interest in working with older adults, she said. An opening in UF’s Social Work Program, and encouragement from program chair Robin Walters-Powell, Ed.D., transitioned her into teaching.
Pitt said gerontology studies have really only begun to gain academic ground within the past decade. But, as the Baby Boomer generation moves through its second act, and as medical breakthroughs and technology continue to lengthen lifespans, interest in the science and psychology of aging is garnering more attention. Now, Pitt’s classes are more popular than ever, Walters-Powell maintained.
Unsatisfied with basic classroom instruction, Pitt is constantly finding ways to incorporate experiential learning into her lesson plans. She has collaborated with Miami University’s Opening Minds through Art program to introduce art therapy to Birchaven Village residents; and has had her students deliver holiday cards, Easter baskets and blankets to nursing home residents.
On campus, for her Psychology of Aging course, Pitt also instructs her gerontology students to use a walker for a period of time everywhere they go, which also gives them a sense of the challenges the elderly face, and the accommodations they must make, in places ranging from bathroom settings to parking lots. In the ethics course, they are instructed to scrutinize their hometowns to judge whether they are “age friendly” for older people who may be dealing with various disabilities, and if they meet care standards developed by the World Health Organization. Students are asked to consider whether there are “food desert” areas where there are no grocery stores, if there are agencies in place that serve the elderly population, and more.
All of her lessons require students to reflect on their perceptions beforehand, during, and afterward.
As an introductory talk, Pitt often asks students what their definition of old age is. “Some are smart and say 65 or older. Some say 40. I had one student say 35. I told him, ‘When you’re 35, give me a call and let me know if you still think 35 is old,’” she said.
Lively discussions, all of them relevant but some of them impromptu, are also a primary component of Pitt’s classes. For instance, on Valentine’s Day this year, romance at the senior level was addressed amidst a presentation designed to focus on depression, delirium, mild cognitive impairment, and neglect. “We got on the subject of STDs in older adults,” she said. “Oftentimes, people think of the them (elderly) as asexual,” but they’re not, she said; any nursing home worker will concur. “As a professor, I have to be able to think on my feet and go with it. Sometimes, you have to seize a moment and deviate a bit from your syllabus,” she added.
Pitt touches on other topics, such as the increase in naturally-occurring retirement communities, the frustrations of growing older, and safety issues. For instance, she highlights emergency management cases that have resulted in nursing home residents trapped by floodwater, and the hazards of driving as mental and physical decline is occurring, successful “ageing in place” in private residences, ageism, aggression, and behaviors associated with dementia. For some students, the subjects hit close to home as they recall similar situations with, for instance, a grandparent, a great uncle or a family friend.
Many of her students are from programs such as pharmacy, occupational therapy and social work, but Pitt considers the learning practical for all, no matter their preferred course of study. After all, everyone interacts with the elderly at some point in their lives, and with the older generation increasingly aging at home instead of in institutionalized settings, more people are finding themselves serving as primary caregivers. Also, the majority of individuals will grow old.
Perspective and context are integral to gerontology learning, Pitt maintained. She hopes that her students take with them the concept that “it’s not just the number at the top. It’s the people you take with you along the way, the people who have helped make you what you are, from whence you came. It’s that life course perspective, those transitions and trajectories.”
Eventually, Pitt would like to supplement her existing gerontology lessons with a death and dying course, which are other essential aspects of the human experience that are often ignored in this culture, misunderstood and feared.
“I tell them (students), ‘You have to start breaking these stereotypes you have about older adults, because if you’re lucky enough to live that long, you’ll be one of them eventually,” said Pitt. “I don’t take a doomsday approach, but I won’t ever say, ‘this won’t ever be you.’”