Throughout campus, UW-Whitewater students last semester might have noticed more posters of older people.
That greater visibility in a place typically dominated by younger students is intentional and part of an effort on campus to change how younger populations view older folks.
But it goes beyond creating goodwill and appreciating others.
Jeannine Rowe, an associate professor of social work at UW-W, said the initiatives from her group, Project GREY, are about addressing the worker shortage in age-related professions.
Those professions include geriatricians, geriatric nurses, geriatric social workers, psychiatrists and more.
This is all coming to a head in Wisconsin, where the population is growing older and older. Right now, Rowe said, one in six Wisconsinites is 65 or older, and in the next two decades, it could reach one in five.
All the while, Rowe said, less than 10 percent of students are pursuing aging-related careers across all kinds of fields.
“It’s pretty clear from the literature. No. 1, it’s a perception of aging, and students don’t see it as relevant,” Rowe said. “We’re trying to change perceptions of aging and relevancy.
“So, if students understand that the greatest history comes from those who lived it, there’s an opportunity for us to enhance perception.”
The spring semester was when Rowe began putting an $85,000 grant from Milwaukee-based Bader Philanthropies to use for Project GREY (an acronym for Geriatric Resources for Engaging Your Students).
The photos on campus, in locations such as Laurentide Hall, feature Wisconsinites—some of whom have been faculty or staff at the university, Rowe said.
There is more happening than posters on walls, however. There are what Rowe calls “intergenerational events” that utilize the nearby Fairhaven Senior Services.
There are the “sit and sips,” where students can meet with older adults and enjoy coffee and pastries.
Starting in the fall, there will be two classes taught mostly at Fairhaven to fit in the curriculum enhancement piece of Rowe’s efforts.
In May, more than 100 students gathered with Fairhaven residents to make more than 2,500 dog biscuits later donated to area dog shelters.
That was a memorable moment for Cloie Rose, who will soon begin her sophomore year at UW-W. She is one of the students working on the project as part of the research apprentice program.
“You get to work with the community members and students on campus, too,” Rose said. “We’ve been putting on some really great events.”
Brian Robinson, director of leisure services at Fairhaven, said the project can push students out of their comfort zones.
Fairhaven is not as hurt by the worker shortages as it could be because of available students. Otherwise, Robinson said, “We would be hurting.
“Everyone needs to think about it (the shortage) in the back of their mind,” he said. “Their grandparents are going to need help, and if they don’t want to be the ones to take care of them at home, they’re going to have to go to a place that needs staff.”
Malayna Oswald, who will be a junior at UW-W in fall, said her involvement in the project is exposing her to research involving people of all ages.
“I think that’s really valuable in helping to learn lessons about just life in general,” she said.
Jennifer Schmidt just finished her sophomore year, and she said the project helped her integrate more into the campus community, where she could learn more about the history.
Those experiences fit into Rowe’s goals.
“We’re transforming (the) culture of aging by not only using images but bringing local residents, people who live in our community, on campus so that students start to recognize we’re an aging-friendly community …” she said.