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Psychology class includes discussions with Shepherdstown Area Independent Living (SAIL)

ISSUED: 13 April 2020
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Some Shepherd University students are getting the opportunity to interact with people the age of their grandparents’ generation, thanks to participation by the Shepherdstown Area Independent Living (SAIL) in the Psychology of Aging class taught by Dr. Heidi Dobish, associate professor of psychology. Dobish originally planned for the students and SAIL members to have the conversations in person, but they are now taking place via ZOOM video conferencing.

“One of the main objectives is to have students change their stereotypes about older adults,” Dobish said. “Without meaningful interactions with older adults that they do not know, younger people tend to keep their beliefs intact by making exceptions, such as thinking older adults are a particular way, but not their grandma, for example. My hope is that by engaging in these discussions, students may begin revising those beliefs.”

During the class, students and SAIL members initially join as one large group, then everyone breaks into smaller groups to discuss a preplanned topic and answer discussion questions. The entire group meets again about 10 minutes before the class ends to summarize and give feedback. Students are required to complete reflection papers after each discussion.

“Those papers have been the most enlightening and what makes this project worth all the work in my book,” Dobish said. “Common comments in the beginning were that the students did not think they were going to like these discussions, but they ‘would do what they had to’ for their grade. But the students ended up fascinated by the discussions and learning from the SAILers’ life stories.”

SAIL discussions include topics such as engaging with technology, difficult conversations, adaptive versus maladaptive coping strategies, and identity and purpose. SAIL member Carolyn Rodis has worked with Dobish for a number of years coordinating the discussions.

“In the past, students have had an opportunity to meet with SAIL members to test their hypotheses about aging,” Rodis said. “This year we tried something new. SAIL members have been attending classes rather than students coming to us.”

Rodis said she is always interested in the students’ perspectives and feelings about various subjects. She points out that community members don’t generally have many opportunities to interact with students, so these class meetings give both groups an opportunity to explore subjects together and learn about individuals’ perspectives.

“We tend to generalize about the other generation,” Rodis said. “This class reminds us that generalizations are merely that. Students are individuals who do not conform to the stereotypes. I am impressed by their maturity and insight. I appreciate their individuality and their openness and willingness to talk freely about their perspectives and feelings. We confirm every year that the students and SAILers are not as different from each other as the media would lead us to believe.”

“It’s a two-way street,” said SAIL member Suzzanne Patrick. “I am getting good insights into the students’ perceptions and am encouraged by their thoughtful responses.”

Marley McLaughlin, a sociology major from Haymarket, Virginia, said she is thankful that Dobish

has given the class this opportunity to engage with SAIL members.

“I am learning that we tend to have the same opinions,” McLaughlin said. “Specifically referring to technology, both generations enjoy keeping in touch with family over the phone or social media platforms but also enjoy face to face conversations and prefer that more. The thing that has surprised me the most is that the SAIL members are so interested in us. They truly want to learn about us so they can better interact with the younger generations.”

McLaughlin thinks all college students should be given the opportunity to have conversations with older community members.

“I lost all my grandparents at a young age so I cherish the time I have with the members of SAIL,” she said. “They truly are wonderful people who care about us and we care about them.”

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