What Do Students Want to Learn About Aging? Anything?
One survey suggests students care a lot more about aging than we might think.
Posted Jul 31, 2020
Throughout the world of health care, individuals pursuing careers in the service of older adults are in short supply. Many doctors get into medicine to heal people and the reality of helping people age, cope with chronic illness, or ultimately have a good death, can feel at odds with that mission. In the world of mental health where I work, biased assumptions (e.g. people are too old to change), lack of exposure, ageism, among other obstacles, frequently get in the way.
In order to better understand students’ level of interest in working with older adults, my colleagues and I recently conducted a survey of graduate students in clinical psychology. Their average age was 28, with most identifying as white (75%) and female (80%).
We asked these students what, if anything, they wanted to learn about aging while they were in graduate school. In our results, we discovered that nearly all participants (96.84% to be exact, or a total of 92 students) could name at least one thing they wanted to learn about aging. These results were much higher than we expected and quite heartening. They challenge the general assumption that most students simply don’t care about aging.
Next, we asked students what exactly they wanted to know. This was an open-ended question that yielded a wide variety of responses. After doing a qualitative analysis, we found a handful of common themes. Over half of the students (63.16%) expressed a general wish to learn how to better help older adults with their mental health concerns. Many also wanted to learn more about what kinds of therapeutic interventions would be helpful, suggesting they are also open to the possibility of working with older adults as future clients.
Many students simply wanted to better understand this phase of life and what concerns are most prominent for older adults. Although psychology students are required to take courses in lifespan development, too often the later years get tacked on to a single class at the end of the semester and end up focusing only on grief and death for just a couple of hours. This is wholly inadequate given that older adulthood is an increasingly extended period of time, accounting for close to one-third of the lifespan for the growing numbers of people blessed with longevity.
Students also named some specific issues where they were curious. These included sexuality and aging, cognitive decline, and coping with medical problems. They also wanted to know how to help diverse populations such as older people of color and members of the LGBT community.
A smaller number of people also described having personal concerns about working with older adults. Students sometimes fear that older clients won’t take them seriously as helpers, or that they will be unable to help someone just because of their age difference. As someone who has specialized in helping older adults since my twenties, I know this is not true. While some older adults will decide they want an older therapist, the vast majority are quite happy to work with someone of any age as long as they see them as competent and caring. It was heartening to hear some students articulate these concerns and seem to want to have such fears addressed.
Although this study had limitations, the results are still exciting. They suggest some potential pathways for engaging students in the study of aging, and remind us that assumptions that young adults simply don’t care are quite far from the truth. We can start by satisfying the curiosity that already exists, and encourage deepening of interest from there.
Reid, BM, Burrows, E, Bryner, B, Graham, K, & King KD (2020). What Doctoral Students Want to Learn About Aging. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.