For their final papers, students in my classes interview an “old” person (over 60) about his or her life and write a description of this person. Reading these papers is always inspiring, surprising, and delightful. The students are usually in their twenties, or, at a stretch, their early 30’s. Many of them have never talked seriously with an elderly person. They find the assignment daunting and often complain that they do not know where to find an old person. They have many nervous questions about the assignment and about how to approach an older person.
Over the course of the next several weeks, each student interviews the same older person at least 3 times for one hour each time. There is a set of questions that are suggested to give the students an idea of how to get at important parts of a person’s life, but overall, the interviews are very free floating. Each semester that I teach this course, I look forward to these final papers. The stories are absorbing and the transformation in the students’ perspectives is even more remarkable.
One student noted in class that most people view elders as either slow, forgetful, and behind the times or wise gurus who have transcended everyday life. We tend to put things in either/or categories, and we have a hard time accepting complexity. But the older people have complex lives and histories, and the ways that they have overcome difficulties or created satisfying lives are unique and varied. People have dealt with trauma, either well or with difficulty. Health concerns sometimes overpower people’s efforts to create a healthy and active old age. And sometimes they don’t. People have financial worries or no financial worries, involvement with family or no involvement with family. They have active work or volunteering or they have hobbies and recreation.
One of the important learnings for students is how much people’s lives reflect their choices and efforts from earlier in their lives. Building a life happens at times subtly and slowly and at times instantly and profoundly. Each interviewee has been faced with life circumstances and unexpected events, and how they have responded to these facts has a huge impact on the quality of their lives later.
At the end of the semester, the students are transformed. Their interviewees have taken great pleasure in sharing their life stories and explaining why they have made the choices they have made. Students are amazed at the happiness and well-being that most of the elders express. The students perspectives have been completely changed and many of the students decide that they will work with an elderly population for their careers. It is a fun transformation to watch, and always a learning experience for everyone.