Harrisburg, PA – The Pennsylvania Department of Aging (PDA) has joined with Slippery Rock University (SRU) to launch a pilot program to offer students in recreational therapy and behavioral sciences programs real world experience by completing service-learning projects that included interactions with older adults.
The Butler and Mercer County Area Agencies on Aging connected more than 100 seniors with PDA, who coordinated with the university to launch the program during SRU's 2020 fall semester. The program will continue in the university's spring semester.
During the pilot program, students from the Recreational Therapy for Older Adults and Aging and the Older Person classes engaged with seniors typically twice a week either over the phone or virtually if the senior had access to videoconferencing technology. The students earned service-learning hours, gained skills in virtual assessment and implementing interventions while participating in a variety of activities with their older adult, including recipe swapping, brain fitness, relaxation, games, and sharing personal life stories. Participating students looking to reduce social isolation and loneliness in older adults also found they gained personal fulfillment.
"My older adult gave me advice that I will use for the rest of my life. Sometimes I really feel like I am just going throughout my day and not really living. My older adult gave me my 'why' for years to come. This was such a great experience. I hope other students can continue this program," said Bailie Fleming, an SRU junior health care administration and management major.
"I am very grateful I was given this opportunity. It was one of my favorite projects throughout my entire college career. This year has been hard on everyone and it was great to be able to be there for someone and for them to be there in return. I will cherish how we were able to share life experiences and overall create an inter-generational relationship," said Maria Josselyn, an SRU senior public health major.
Another goal of the pilot program is to get more young people interested in fields that involve working with and supporting older adults.
"SRU is committed to preparing students who have an interest in addressing the needs of older adults and providing services for this population," said Adelle Williams, professor of public health and social work, department chair and coordinator of the gerontology program. "This program enables students to better serve the needs of older adults. It also enhances our students' awareness and understanding of the challenges and opportunities that older people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and functional abilities experience."
"It's a privilege for SRU and our students to be able to collaborate with the Department of Aging in an effort to serve our community's at-risk older adults," said Betsy Kemeny, associate professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy. "This is a win-win for our students to have an opportunity to learn and for older adults to learn and benefit from one-on-one, virtual interactions with our students. I am thrilled that this project will support so many people who are socially isolated while also allowing our students the chance to apply and reflect on what they are learning in the virtual classroom about recreational therapy assessment and interventions for older adults."
SRU and PDA began discussing a pilot program following PDA's presentation of the idea to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) in early April 2020, when PASSHE shared the department's interest with the 14 universities in the state university system. The increased risk of social isolation among seniors as a result of the pandemic put the program on the fast track.
"The Department of Aging is pleased to have partnered with Slippery Rock University to kick off this program. It's important for seniors to be engaged and connected to help prevent social isolation and the resulting adverse impacts. The program offered an opportunity for older adults to interact with the students and proved to be valuable for everyone involved. It also was a wonderful learning experience for us as a department. The pilot program not only helped us to discover how we can further support older Pennsylvanians, but to get feedback from the faculty and the students involved on what worked and what did not, and how we can improve on it moving forward," said Secretary of Aging Robert Torres.
PDA is hoping to expand this program for the spring semester and is currently connecting with other universities that initially expressed interest in the program to inform them of how it was received through SRU. The department is also contacting other universities across the commonwealth to explore inclusion of the program in their curriculums.
Learn more about the various programs offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging here.
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