Program Brings Together Three Generations to Discuss Aging

Bison Blinds

By Liz Carey, The Daily Yonder
April 16, 2024

Three scholars from the Oklahoma State University (OSU) received a three-year, $242,000 grant to support healthy aging in rural Oklahoma communities. Their program, Active Aging for L.I.F.E, helps college-aged students, high school students and senior citizens learn from each other as they grow older.

Emily Roberts, an associate professor at OSU and one of the grant receipients, said the rural health program is designed to help participants on both ends of the age spectrum. The goal is to challenge assumptions people have against aging and bridge generational divides in rural communities across Oklahoma, Roberts said.

Over a third of Oklahoma’s population lives in rural communities, according to the Census definition.

 “There are several factors that older adults face living in these economically fragile communities,” Roberts said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “There are barriers to health and human services. They are impacted by not only the economic factors but by available transportation, and sometimes lower than average insurance coverage.”

She said she thinks older adults in rural areas tend to be likely to contend with isolation and separation from family members who have left the area. 

“All of these factors kind of culminate in pretty poor health outcomes particularly for older adults,” she said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 20% of rural (nonmetropolitan) residents are 65 or older, 4 points higher than in metropolitan areas.

But aging, Roberts said, is something rural adults have control over.

“Some of our faculty got together and started to look at some of the health outcomes in our rural communities,” she said. “We wondered what we could do about it. And we started to look at active aging as a way to start changing people’s perceptions and behaviors about the aging process. It’s not something that just happens to us. We have control.”

To help the older adults, as well as to guide young people to being healthier as they age, Roberts and her colleagues  (Associate Professor Greg Clare, also in the Department of Design and Merchandising, and Assistant Professor Xuewei Chen) will begin running the Active Aging for L.I.F.E. programs in rural schools across the state. Starting in mid-April, older adults will go into six high schools in rural counties and spend time with students in family consumer sciences classes.

“There aren’t too many of these kinds of programs,” Roberts said. “There are health and wellness programs for certain populations, but this brings together multiple populations at the same time.”

Roberts said the program brings together older adults and college-aged students to create life leader teams. Those teams are trained in leading modules on the four focuses of L.I.F.E. – Longevity, Independence, Fitness and Engagement.

“We will be spending four class sessions with two different groups of students for our first go ‘round,” she said. “We’re pretty excited about it because it is bringing three generations to the table to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally be talking about. If we can start high school students thinking about the positive things they can do across their life… to impact some of the later outcomes, particularly in these rural communities.”

The program also helps engage the older adults, she said. They get to spend time with a group of students they don’t normally get to spend time with and reflect on their life choices, Roberts said.

“In one of the previous programs that we did, we had an older adult who said something to the effect that ‘We’re all in the same boat. We’re just at different ends of it,’” she said. “And I think that’s really the perspective we have. It’s not an US and THEM discussion. It’s how can we be more proactive across our life span?”

Roberts said that while many of the things they talk about are presented to high schoolers in other classes and forums – eat healthy, exercise properly, sleep well – getting those life tips from someone who knows about those issues first hand has a different impact.

“When you connect it with this life framework, I think it becomes a little bit more powerful,” she said. “

While the grant funding isn’t available to study whether the program will have had an impact on the high school students 10, 20 or 30 years from now, surveys given during a trial study of the Active Aging for L.I.F.E. modules in 2017 found that the discussions do have an impact.

“We could see (from the surveys) that they were starting to think about how aging relates to them right now and not just as something in the future,” she said. “For the older adults, for them, it was really a good experience to be able to just share their life knowledge. Having these conversations turned out to be a really impactful for both generations to be sitting at the same table having these discussions.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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