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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Hyde Park Center for Older Adults Welcomes XU Students for Life History Project

By Grace DeGregorio

For the past 17 years Hyde Park resident Jim Gruber, a licensed social worker and longtime professional In the field, has been involved with a unique project involving first year psychology doctoral students at Xavier University.  As part of their program, they experience through the Life History project  an aspect of their future professional fields frequently overlooked.

Jim explains, “The purpose of the  project, from an academic perspective, is to expose young potential clinicians  to working with an elder population.  I see a lack of interest in this area.”
From Jim’s perspective, the value of the project is the enlightenment of the student while engaging an older person in dialog.

Dr. Jennifer Ossege and her doctoral students who conducted the Life History Project at Hyde Park Center for Older Adults 
“It’s always been about knowing who your client is.  One way is to have clients, patients and/or residents of retirement communities/nursing homes write memoirs that then become part of their medical record for professionals to use.  Medical histories typically are taken - but not always social histories.  You need to know the person fully to provide better care.

“People need to be educated about aging, which is a lifelong process, early on.  They are taught about the stages of development, but the focus usually is on early childhood.  Aging is at the end of the process, but it’s not talked about.  Actually, aging goes alongside from early childhood - we continually age - and should be talked about alongside the developmental stages.”

The Life History project, supervised by Jennifer Ossege, PsyD, of Xavier University, involves matching students in her class to elderly participants whom the students interview to gather information to write a memoir.  There is close collaboration between the student and participant, with both being involved in the editing of the memoir to its final draft.

“The class that participates in the Life History Project is the Introduction to Clinical Interactions course,” explains Dr. Ossege.  “This course is taught once a year to first year psychology doctoral students as they prepare for their first practicum experience, which occurs during their second year in the program.”

In past years the project has been implemented in continuing care retirement communities including Seasons, Llanfair, The Kenwood, Mt. Healthy Christian Village and Twin Lakes.  Shelley Goering, the Executive Director of the Hyde Park Center for Older Adults, worked with Jim Gruber to bring the project to The Kenwood when she was employed there.  “When I started at the Hyde Park Center, Jim called and asked if he could do the project here,” explains Shelley. After talking to Cathy Colque, the Center’s Assistant Director and determining “it would be a great fit here.” the subject was broached at a lunch with members, which Jim attended to provide details..

“We asked for volunteers,” says Shelley, “and we immediately got 18!”  A ‘meet and greet’ was organized, giving students and participants a chance to break the ice.  Since then, several Life History interviews have taken place at the Center. 

Dr. Ossege says, “The Hyde Park Center did a nice job talking with individuals to assess their interest and availability to participate in the project. Students were randomly assigned to an older adult, who then became their Life History Project Partner. They met several times with the goal of gathering information relating to the Life History of the individual, which allows the student an opportunity to develop their interpersonal interview skills and data gathering, while also providing the older adult a chance to share their stories and wisdoms with a younger generation. Ultimately, the student writes up the Life History Project and presents it to the older adult to keep and share with their families if they choose to do so.”

“It was so interesting to see the dynamics of the students and participants,” says Shelley.  “You see the students diligently writing down the wisdom coming from the person they’re interviewing.”

Jim says among the participants from the Center are several couples.  Each is having his/her story done by a separate student.  Something also unique to this experience is some of the students are visiting the homes of the participants which, Jim observes, “will give a different perspective from that of a structured environment of a retirement community or nursing home.”

Students are required to interview a minimum of three hours, but most devote more time.  “The students were great - very enthusiastic,” says Jim.

Dr.Ossege concurs.  “Having taught this class for the last few years, it has been interesting to see the reactions of the students evolve throughout the course of the project. Initially, many are apprehensive about the interactions, not having many experiences with interacting with individuals they don’t yet know in general, and then not sure what to expect from working with an older population. Some of the students may even be a little intimidated at first. 

“Without fail, the reactions change as they get to know their Life History Project Partner as a person. Although they are not conducting therapy, it is good experience to meet with a new person and help them in telling their story — skills that are essential for developing therapists. 

“So many students cite this project — specifically getting to know their partner — as one of their favorite aspects of the course and many have mentioned it is something they look forward to in their week. Amid exams and papers and other academic endeavors, they get to visit with and be present with their older adult partner, which has been enjoyable overall. For many, this is a good reminder of why they wanted to be psychologists in the first place.”

According to Dr. Ossege, one student shared, “I really loved working with my partner and it was a breath of fresh air to get to listen to him tell his story…..I can see now how working with older adults can really be very rewarding.”

Other student quotes, “…the life history project is definitely a highlight of the semester.

“...after reviewing the final Life History Project with my partner, she cried as she read it because she was so touched….this showed me what this meant to her and I am very glad I was able to work with her and to write her life history. It was hard to say goodbye at the end of the project.”

Shelley says the reaction of the project participants from the Hyde Park Center was very positive.  “It validates everything they have done in their lives by sharing their information.”  Dr. Ossege notes, “I was happy to find that the older participants were very welcoming to the students and excited to engage in the project, and that many of the participants continue to maintain very active and interesting lifestyles in their retirement years!”

One student commented, “Meeting individuals through the community center means we are seeing individuals who have a wider range of functioning and engagements with their communities and lifestyles. What I greatly appreciate about this setting is that many are at the point of making the transition from fully independent to a more assisted style of living, and this can be a very tough transition. What an amazing and meaningful part of their lives for us to be witness to!”

The positive impact on the students is a rewarding aspect of the project.  Dr. Ossege shares, “For many first year doctoral students there can be a fair amount of uncertainty as they enter their first clinical experience as a practicum student. This experience of meeting regularly with their older adult partner often helps them put things in perspective and allows them to interact with someone who has grown up in a very different time. Often they leave the experience feeling more comfortable with interacting with older adults and have a greater appreciation of the life experiences of their partner. 
“Many are pleasantly surprised at the vibrant and active lifestyles that many of their partners still maintain — even into their 80s or 90s! What typically starts off as apprehension and uncertainty, turns into a genuine relationship which leads to increased confidence and excitement about their career path as a psychologist.”

Student reactions bear out Dr. Ossege’s observations.  

“…sometimes I have worried that maybe I won’t connect with a specific population because we don’t share the same experiences, but with my Life History Project partner I’ve realized while much of our lives are very different, the emotions, such as sadness, fear and happiness, are present regardless of race or age.”

“I am already passionate about working with older adults, so this project has further strengthened my determination and decision to work with this population. There is so much value in being heard, and there is a lot of personal reward in being the one who listens and gives narratives the time and space to be shared”

“The older adult population is growing and the demand for trained professionals is increasing, but is not being met. Exposing students to work with older adults may increase the number of individuals interested in working with older adults. If not directing students to focusing on work with older adults, this project will hopefully, at least, engender appreciation for this underserved population.
“One of the students who participated in this project a couple of years ago recently shared with me that she continues to visit with her Life History Project partner. She said that once the project was complete, they enjoyed each other’s company so much that they continued to meet. A few other students have expressed a similar experience. Other students have mentioned that it is difficult to say goodbye to their partner and that they are so appreciative of their time spent together. Students in a doctoral program have very demanding schedules, so it is difficult for many of them to find the time to continue to visit regularly, which is a regret that many have expressed.”

As a catalyst for bringing the Life History project to the community, Jim Gruber has engendered great respect and appreciation.  “We have been so fortunate to have Mr. Jim Gruber organize and participate in this project for the past several years!” says Dr. Ossege.  “He comes into the classroom and talks with the graduate students about issues related to working with older adults and encourages them to get involved in this work. The students love when he talks with them and shares his experiences, funny stories and pearls of wisdom. We at Xavier University are so grateful to him for sharing his knowledge, experiences and time with us, and for his contribution to the next generation of psychologists.”

The value of this project, and for the development of future professionals working with older adults, is recognized by the students. One said, “We, as a nation, are in desperate need of competently trained professionals who are able, willing and passionate about caring for our rapidly aging population. Through this program, I hope more become aware of this dire need and appreciate the circumstances in which we find ourselves. 

“I am already passionate about working with older adults, so I came into this project already biased toward its benefits. I think this project is valuable for the older adults and for the students. For the older adults, they are getting a chance to be heard in a society that is quick to listen to someone else. It can give them a sense of importance and value. For students, this is good practice in understanding lifelong development of an individual and how experiences from every stage of life come together in shaping us as we all age.”

Jim Gruber Awarded
The University of Cincinnati and The School of Social Work recently bestowed on Jim Gruber of Hyde Park an Alumni of the Year Award.  He was among four alums recognized, reparesenting the College of Allied Health Sciences and Social Work.  
Jim, who says, “This is quite an honor for me,” started the James E. Gruber Endowment for Aging Education at U.C.

Jim Gruber


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