This post was written by Joseph R. Holtmann, a senior majoring in psychology. This post describes his service learning experience while taking Aging and Identity through Literature and Film (PSY 309) this semester.
Her name is Lucille. If you haven’t been around old people much outside your own family it may be difficult to relate. It can be fun, challenging, and at times even boring but that did not prevent me from going back to see Lucille time and time again. You see at first, I had the bright idea to stick to the assignment I was working on, and “do the time” so to speak. Which I secretly thought was punny because the assignment was to complete a certain amount of time spent with an older person, to learn about them and report our findings in some way. I had done a similar project the year prior and was not looking forward to re-hashing the same old questions and learning the same knowledge. I realized this and decided to make the best of it. I walked in and then I met her. The most picture perfect grandmother like you wouldn’t believe. (Not to offend anyone’s grams). This short little lady in high spirits and spunky lingual skills was the cutest darn thing I ever saw. Melissa, the woman I had been helping with her graduate work introduced me to her. She said “Her name is Lucille.”
So the project began. I went to work straight away, and she sat down, after getting comfortable of course, and was ready to get started. That first day I asked her about her family and her thoughts on society. After gauging where she was as far as status, I posed a question to her about gender. I don’t recall exactly what the question was but I remember thinking “This is kind of a gutsy approach”. Though I continued on anyway. She wasn’t fazed in the slightest. Lucille opened up to me with a cold scholarly response behavior. After about an hour talking about gender in society and her views on it, I decided to move on to another topic. I think it had something to do with the stars or constellations or something like that. Regardless she asks “What is your sign?” “Libra” I said in response. She chuckles and then with a little smile and twinkle in her eye she says to me “The best ones always are.” We laughed and shortly after our first meeting came to an end. I had some great background information about her life, and started to learn more about her as a person. She was incredibly warm in personality and witty as well. For an 84 year old, her mind was quick and sharp and I was impressed by her charm of character.
In class, in between visits with Lucille, we would cover issues that commonly present themselves during old age and or specifically affect older people. In one of the films we watched “Calendar Girls,” the film had directly approached the issue of gender and the role gender takes in later life. The movie is about a group of older ladies roughly 50-60 years old. The ladies decide to make a nude calendar posing behind things that would be typical of their daily lives as women. The poked fun in some ways the stereotyping of gender roles in old age and I thought that would be a good topic to discuss with Lucille that day. I would follow this same pattern after every class period. We discussed things that I felt were significant in the class like identity and the concept of stagnation. I noticed as the weeks went by, that as predicted some of the films were decent representations of older adults while many were often biased. The issue with most Hollywood productions is that there aren’t enough TV shows or films that accurately depict older individuals. The men will often be depicted as going through a “mid-life crisis” which scientifically has never been shown to exist. The women will often be depicted as widowers, which has been shown to happen frequently in couples over 70 years of age. So how do we find out what depictions are real? That’s the hard part, there is not a lot of information on the lives of older adults as most fields of developmental study, focus more on children and adolescents.
While I was spending time with Lucille, I learned just how important the concept of generativity really was in life. She has proven that the stereotypes may well suit the depictions of older adults in Hollywood, but she wasn’t one of them. The stereotype content model suggests that the more warm you are and the more incompetent you seem will put off a “paternal” kind of vibe; a common way of stereotyping older women. Now granted, Lucille does seem like a great grandmother, but she does not give off any sense of low incompetence. When paying attention to song lyrics, a similar stereotyping persists, although music does seem to be more versatile when describing older adults. Still the common themes involve: confronting death, loss of a loved one, regret over not accomplishing everything or questioning past actions, re-marriage and widowhood, and a feeling of isolation in later life post-retirement. Though these concepts do happen often in older adulthood, they are only some and mostly non-positive expectations of older life. There is a wide range of positive associations as well that frequently get overlooked. Things like generativity, which is the act of giving back to other generations, which may not always be parents/children. Honesty about their mortality, the ability to love again after a loss of spouse, and many others.
Over all the assignment was a success. Through Lucille’s nice smiles and clever banter, I have learned so much in the way of perspective. Together we have discussed our lives and we have shared knowledge. More importantly I made a good friend. I look forward to learning more from her. She has made my heart melt and I am glad I have had the chance to meet her on a level I don’t think most have. It has been truly a wonderful experience. If you meet her, just make sure you don’t call her “Lucy”, her name is Lucille.