Walk in My Shoes
With more than 35 millions citizens now over the age of 65 and an aging generation of baby boomers right behind, the United States is undergoing a demographic shift to an older society. Meeting the needs of an aging population represents a continuing challenge, one that is addressed by University of Illinois Extension program targeted toward youth and adults.
Walk in My Shoes was developed by Molly Hofer, a UI Extension family life educator based in the metropolitan Chicago area. Through lessons and hands-on experience, it teaches those who come into contact with older citizens how to more effectively communicate with them and serve their needs.
Participants don scratched and colored glasses that simulate deteriorating vision, wear gloves in attempting to open pill bottles, and use cassette tapes to simulate hearing problems--all in an effort to learn what it might be like to face the world as an aging person.
Hofer, who holds an master's degree in gerontology, came to Extension 16 years ago after working in hospitals, primarily educating staff on effective communications with elderly patients.
"Intergenerational programs have become an increasingly popular way of bringing young and old together to learn more about each generation and to benefit mutually by the exchange, " Hofer explains. "In the process of working on this idea for Extension, the Walk in My Shoes program evolved."
The primary audience was to be youth involved in Extension's 4-H program, but Hofer is busy presenting the program at the request of suburban Chicago villages seeking to increase the sensitivity and awareness of their employees who serve older residents. For those working with older citizens, awareness of the changes that age brings can be very important. Adults participating in Hofer's program learn firsthand what it feels like from the other perspective.
"There are a lot of positive and negative stereotypes about aging out there. There is the myth that if you live long enough, you will become senile," she says. "Or some perceive older people as greedy and selfish. Still others see older people as being all alike. This truth is that older people are just as different from each other and have as many different interests and abilities as any other generation. We try to present a more positive, a more real image that will dispel these stereotypes."
To date, thousands of youth and adults in the Chicago area have received this training, and the demand has grown to the point that Hofer is spending most of her time with the project, training others to teach it.
"This program is particularly helpful to orient new staff at nursing homes, senior care groups, and people in other agency settings where older adults are served," she says.
The challenge is not going to disappear. If anything, it will only increase as the baby boomers continue to age.
The Walk in My Shoes project materials are now online!
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