First in Minnesota: High school gerontology course changes perspectives on aging

About 18 months ago, Julie Mundahl, a family and consumer sciences (FACS) teacher at Buffalo High School, had a meeting with a group of local business leaders to discuss career development for her students.

One of the topics was the rising demand for professional caregivers in Buffalo and across Minnesota. By 2025, one million Minnesotans will be over the age of 65, and the state will need 25,000 additional professional caregivers to help meet their needs over the next decade.

In Wright County alone, where Buffalo is located, 27 percent of the population will be over 65 by 2030.

“Based on our discussion and listening to our advisors, it was really clear that we ought to offer a course on gerontology, the study of aging,” Julie said.

Julie teamed up with advisory committee member Annette Greely, the administrator of Park View Care Center, a skilled nursing home in Buffalo. Annette graduated from the gerontology program at St. Cloud State University, so they reached out to St. Cloud to be a partner for the course.

“Right away, they said they wanted to do this,” Julie said.

Julie and Annette worked with Dr. Phyllis Greenberg, the associate professor of the gerontology program, to create material for the course and make it possible for students to receive college credit along with high school credit.

“Everybody was really excited,” Julie said. “It’s a great introduction to this population for any career opportunity.”

The student experience

Student Delanie Lefave with a Park View Care Center resident Vernetta Zimmerman

At the start of this school year, 18 Buffalo High School students joined the nine-week elective course on gerontology — the first time a course like this has been offered at the public high school level in Minnesota.

“I got interested in it when I went to St. Cloud State for a gerontology class,” said Mason Splichal, a Buffalo High School sophomore who is taking the gerontology course. His favorite part of the curriculum is getting to work directly with seniors.

The course includes a service learning component, where students are required to complete 12 hours of volunteering with seniors. With the help of a grant and the Park View Care Center, Annette was able to provide transportation and a location for the service learning.

“I want to be a police officer, so I have to work with all people,” Mason said. “It’s given me more of an insight on older adults, which is what I wanted to take away from this class.”

Apart from in-person experience with residents, students learn how different populations are aging across the state and study mental health, physical health and the importance of social life for seniors.

Additionally, St. Cloud provides students with vision impairment goggles, wheelchairs and walkers so students can experience some of the physical challenges of aging.

“The glasses simulate a cataract or a glaucoma,” said Dalanie Lefave, a high school senior in the gerontology course. “We get to walk around school, and it’s a totally different perspective.”

Dalanie’s perception of older adults has changed since she began working with the older adults. She has learned that seniors are more willing and able to participate in new activities than some might expect.

“They are way cooler than most people think,” she said. “They prove you wrong. Something I’ve learned is not to underestimate them.”

Delanie wants to be a carpenter after high school but knows that her new understanding of aging will impact her views regardless of her occupation.

“Even as a carpenter, you still have to keep older adults in mind,” she says. “What if I have to build a facility for them?”

The biggest takeaway for students is how rewarding and meaningful it is to work with older adults.

“They really like having us come here and they really appreciate it,” says Delanie. “Other high schools should have this class.”

Buffalo High School plans to offer this course again to students next fall.

The resident experience

“I see the residents light up when the students are around,” said Barb Anderly, the activities director for Park View Care Center.

Park View Care Center resident Barb Tasa with a photo of the gerontology course students

Barb has noticed the positive impact the students have on the residents, and many of them have built strong friendships with the students. “The more interactions that our residents have with real life people, the more they feel a part of the community,” she said.

Residents and students have worked on a range of projects — from making pickles to learning how to use an iPad.

“One of the seniors here likes to paint, so one of the students showed her how she could paint on the iPad,” Julie said. “She was so proud of her work.”

Another resident received help from Mason on how to properly use her computer, but it’s more than computer instruction for them. Mason enjoyed learning about her family history, and the resident appreciated having someone to talk to.

Barb hopes more students share experiences with older adults and continue to learn from their stories.

“It’s good for children of all ages to come and have experiences with people who are elderly because they’ll feel more comfortable with aging,” Barb said.

The impact

Three students from the gerontology course have already begun taking nursing assistant courses and two have been hired by the Park View Care Center as concierges.

“I think the students are more appreciative,” Julie said. “They’ve learned through the older adults sharing their stories.”

Julie and Barb hope that this course can be an inspiration and an example for other high schools across Minnesota.

“For them to come here and get experience with aging,” Barb said, “is going to make them better workers and better people overall.”

Andrea Magaña is a regulator contributor to Face Aging MN. If you want to reach her or have any questions, you can reach us at info@faceagingmn.org. Have your own story to share? We’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “First in Minnesota: High school gerontology course changes perspectives on aging

  1. Great story! You high schoolers impacted these seniors! You gave them confidence that they are valued!

  2. I LIVE IN ASSISTED LIVING AND HAVE CARE FROM NURSING ASSISTANCE. THIS NEW PROGRAM SHOULD BE MANDATORY UNLESS HAS ELDER HELP HAS A CNA ,I SEE NO HELP AT ALL I LOVE THIS NEW IDEA. AN IT BE SPREAD ACROSS MINNESOTA ?

  3. This is a great story and I’m proud of Buffalo, my school district, for stepping up to do this. As a Social Worker I see the desperate need for caring, quality workers on a daily basis. Let’s continue to encourage our youth to work in this rewarding field!

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