Amherst Class Explores the Theories, Realities of Growing Old
By Caroline Hanna
Gigi Green and Kaitlyn McInnis '13 had lunch at Valentine Dining Hall recently.
But the pair has many things in common. Both women are regular exercisers: Green frequents the Planet Fitness Gym in nearby Hadley and McInnis is a forward on the college’s hockey team. Both enjoy meditating. And both have deep interests in history, particularly World War II.
“The first time I met Gigi, I thought, ‘Here I am, having a conversation with someone who was 67 when I was born,’” said McInnis recently, over lunch with Green at Valentine Dining Hall. “But I quickly forgot about the age difference. She is so easy to talk to that we ended up chatting for hours. Since then, we’ve developed an incredible bond.”
McInnis and Green, who first met in September, became fast friends through the psychology department’s multidisciplinary “Psychology of Aging” course. Taught for decades by Lisa Raskin, the John William Ward Professor of Psychology, the class delves into the many behavioral changes that happen to humans as a normal part of the aging process. It explores, among other things, the physiology of memory loss, the perceptual and intellectual changes that people experience while growing older and several aging-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration.
But students don’t just study the science of growing older. They discuss the myths, stereotypes and prejudices associated with it and examine aging through a cultural lens, reading plays, poetry and books that deal with the topic. In addition to a textbook for the course, students read Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Psychology professor Lisa Raskin has been teaching "Psychology of Aging" for decades.
The most illuminating part of the class, though, is the “fieldwork,” said Raskin. Students enrolled in “Psychology of Aging” are paired with elderly members of the community through a town initiative called the Friendly Visitor program, and they spend a couple of hours a week with the senior citizens, learning the classroom lessons firsthand. Those meetings can involve cooking, errand-running, reading aloud or just sitting and talking. “Spending time with the seniors helps the students put a face on aging,” said Raskin. “It also gives the students a healthy perspective on and strategy for growing old.”
That’s not to say that the course ignores or glosses over the difficulties and realties of aging. “The students do see life as it is,” said Raskin. “Sometimes the older participants are hospitalized. Once, someone died. It is the real world, real life.” Nevertheless, participating “is a very rich experience for both the students and their older friends,” she added.
Paul Vasconcellos, 64, couldn’t agree more. He has met eight different undergraduates over the past three years through “Psychology of Aging” and raves that the program “bridges an important gap between Amherst College and the town of Amherst.” “I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the students and just how diverse they are,” he added, noting that he’s gotten to know undergraduates from Iowa and South Korea, among other places. (This semester, he was visited by two Amherst undergraduates from Asia; one even made the trek to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton when he had to be admitted for health problems.)
Vasconcellos cites trimming his Christmas tree with a student from Zimbabwe and comforting a Chinese undergraduate whose faraway grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer as two of the more memorable moments during his involvement with “Psychology of Aging.” In addition to enjoying the company of the students, “spending time with them keeps me current and reminds me that I still have something to offer," he said. “The relationships I’ve been able to forge have been really amazing.”
Green echoes those sentiments. “I learn so much from Kaitlyn, and I think she learns from me, too,” she said fondly. “When we hang out, we can talk for hours. You really get a feel for what’s going on in each other’s age group that way.”
“But you’re not a traditional 88-year-old,Gigi, so I don’t know if I am getting to know what’s going on in your age group,” interjected McInnis with a laugh. “She was just telling me how she went to the midnight premier of Twilight recently with her [60-year-old] daughter and then went to the gym and an all-night diner.”
McInnis did add, on a serious note, that the fact that Green is interested in and still able to participate in such activities has alleviated her own fears about aging. McInnis developed these fears watching her 87-year-old grandmother struggle with dementia. Visiting Green, McInnis said, has reinforced a message of Raskin’s course: that no two people age in the same manner. “I think what the class has taught me is that there are some things I can control about growing old and some things I can’t. Meeting Gigi, though, has reassured me that, whatever happens in my life, if I have her positive outlook, I’ll be fine.”
Photos by Rob Mattson