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Developing meaningful connections with senior citizens
by Chuck Gordon

Dr. Lacey Ritter practically grew up in a nursing home. In tiny Greene, Iowa, her mom worked in a nursing facility for 40 years. When not in school, Ritter roamed the home’s grounds and hallways.

Besides cookies and candy, the residents gave Ritter their full attention.

“You’ve got this whole big group of grandparents, and they were all so excited to see you, and they wanted to hear how your day was going,” Ritter says. “It was hugs and kisses.”

And it was stories. Fascinating tales of war and love and lives well lived. Stories of seeing the first color television or watching the moon landing or being there for the birth of rock ’n’ roll. “I would sit for hours and hours and listen,” Ritter says.

Many of them were just grateful for the companionship. “It was the stories, but also, ‘I see you more than I see my kids. I haven’t seen them in months,’” Ritter says. “We lived in a town of 900. They lived three blocks away!”

Empathy for America’s elderly stuck with Ritter through her college years, and today the assistant sociology professor is passing along to her Wingate students that desire to study aging and assist senior citizens.

As part of the Collaborative for the Common Good, Ritter and assistant psychology professor Dr. Candace Lapan are implementing service-learning projects that will benefit seniors in Wingate and other nearby towns and rural areas.

In Ritter’s Sociology of Aging and Lapan’s Psychology of Aging classes, students research, create and implement projects that get seniors moving, learning and socializing.

“We want students to work on real problems that you have,” Lapan told a group of representatives from care facilities, hospitals and agencies that serve the elderly, during a luncheon last fall.

The students will initially talk to those same people to find out what services and activities their constituents are looking for that they don’t have access to now. In rural areas such as eastern Union County, those needs can be great. In groups of three or four, the students will come up with projects that meet those needs.

What those projects will look like is still very much up in the air. Maybe the students will organize fitness classes, help with home-improvement projects, provide transportation or simply host get-togethers.

“I want to make them proactive in helping plan the course,” Ritter says. “I want this to mean something to them, because then those connections will be more sustainable.”

Maybe, for some students, the courses will seep into their bones and they’ll go have an effect on aging populations in other communities once they graduate. While doing her doctoral work at Florida State University, Ritter read Making Gray Gold: Narratives of Nursing Home Care, by Timothy Diamond. The book described the day-to-day activities of a nursing home but put it into a wider societal context. It was gut-wrenching stuff. “It just wrecked me,” Ritter says. “I was sobbing and calling my mom. ‘I grew up there and I didn’t even know this was happening.’ After I read that, I said, ‘I have to do aging. It’s important. It needs to be done.’”

Now she, Lapan and the CCG are influencing others to take up the cause.

  • CCG