Reaching the forgotten population: why students should seek connections with senior citizens

Grace Leake

Austin’s senior population is growing at a frenetic rate. Although Austin presents a carefully cultivated image of itself as a city for young creatives, its older demographic is becoming more prominent. Between 2000 and 2010, the Austin area had the fastest growth of ‘pre senior’ (age 55-64) population in the nation, and the second fastest growth of senior (age 65+) population. As the number of elderly citizens swells, students must consider how Austin, and the student community at UT, can best serve this population.

Aging in America can be a lonely experience. Unlike the experience of aging in other cultures, where seniors are more likely to spend their last years at home, cared for by their children, aging in western cultures often means being placed in a retirement home in relative isolation from the rest of society. This often occurs out of necessity; some seniors do not have a family to care for them and others find that their children are staying in the workforce longer and do not have the time or resources to tend to them.

What can students do to help combat senior citizens’ isolation? Miranda Gonzales, a recreation specialist at West Oaks Rehabilitation Center, said that something as simple as a visit, especially if the visitor is a young individual, can bring a lot of joy to senior residents. When asked about intergenerational interaction, Gonzales said, “It reminds (senior residents) of the happiest time of their life.” Gonzales said that building these intergenerational friendships doesn’t have to be complicated. “Students can visit, get to know them, see what they’re like, what they’re interested in, make their lives happier.”

These intergenerational friendships not only bring joy into the lives of elderly citizens, but are also vital in transmitting wisdom and perspective to younger adults. Senior citizens have experienced a great deal of the world and the ups and downs of life and can communicate the lessons that they’ve learned to younger individuals. A student struggling to find direction in their career, for example, could talk to a senior citizen who has experienced similar anxieties and can explain how they learned to navigate the workforce. Gonzales noted that the seniors she works with have “so many stories to tell, stories you’ve only heard in history books and at school.” When our culture, obsessed with youth and terrified of age, overlooks the senior citizens living in isolated communities, it loses a source of wisdom that should be treated as a priceless societal resource.

Austin, and the students at UT, should strive for greater engagement with senior citizens. Not only do we have a responsibility to reach out to all of Austin’s communities, but we also have an immense deal to gain from these intergenerational friendships. I asked Gonzales what she’s learned from working with senior citizens. She laughed. “I’m not the one teaching them.”

Leake is a Plan II and business freshman. She is a columnist. Follow her on Twitter @grace_leake.