Learning from Experience

Seniors Go Back to School

36aWhat do a nine-year-old and a 70-year-old have in common—other than a 61-year age gap? Not much, according to most people. Many social-service agencies feel the same way, regarding children and older adults as separate groups requiring unique approaches. But a few programs are beginning to bridge the gap, and a joint effort between UAB’s School of Education and Center for Aging is leading the trend locally.

The Collaborative Action Research Program (CARP) brings children and seniors together at two Birmingham elementary schools. “We in society don’t necessarily think of children and older adults working together,” says psychologist Martha Crowther, Ph.D., a Center for Aging scientist. “I particularly like this project because it brings the two populations together in a meaningful way. Seniors provide something positive to the children, and they have the opportunity to develop relationships and pass on their wisdom.”

Funded by UAB’s Urban Education Project and the Center for Aging, the initiative began last fall at Glen Iris and South Hampton schools. At South Hampton, CARP is called Project AIM (Adult Identity Mentoring); about 20 seniors work with fourth- and fifth-graders to help instill life skills, from setting goals to establishing solid work habits. At Glen Iris, the project is called GRACE (Grandparents Reading and Comprehending Enthusiastically); it teams seniors with students in grades K-5 to enhance reading skills.

“We’re starting to see more programs like this around the country,” Crowther says. “The Foster Grandparent Program, for example, allows schools around the country to have older adults come in to help children during the school day with homework or help the teacher manage the classroom. Those are wonderful programs, but I like the fact that this project is a true collaboration, with seniors, children, and the school system all involved.”

Education researcher Deborah Voltz, Ed.D., director of UAB’s Urban Education Project, hopes to expand CARP. “We sent applications to the Birmingham, Bessemer, and Midfield school systems this year,” Voltz says. “We’ve targeted urban districts in the Birmingham area so far, but we would like to encourage broader participation in the future.”

Angela Curtis, Ph.D., geriatric education manager at the Center for Aging, and Patricia Sawyer, Ph.D., made a presentation on CARP in February to the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. “The focus of the conference was on mentorship,” Curtis says. “We don’t know the outcome of our projects yet, but we were able to talk about how we created the collaboration, how we developed the call for proposals, and how we decided which applications to fund.”

CARP ties in with Crowther’s other research on seniors and kids. “I’ve found that grandparents who are raising grandchildren seem to be more stressed and have more health problems than other grandparents. But there is a positive side, too. We find that many of them are engaged in life in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise.”

— Roger Shuler