Interim course examines aging through conversation

St. Olaf students talk to adults at FiftyNorth, the senior center in Northfield, as part of Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Petok’s Interim class on ‘The Aging Brain and Cognition.’

“Sentiment towards aging usually focuses on what we lose and what goes wrong. But if we focus on the positives, we can leverage the talents and wisdom of older adults,” St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Petok said while standing in one of St. Olaf’s more unusual classroom settings. Every Tuesday this Interim, Petok held her class on The Aging Brain and Cognition at FiftyNorth, the senior center in Northfield.

The class is part of the college’s Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) program, which promotes “an educational approach that encourages students to learn in community contexts.” In the meeting room-turned-classroom, St. Olaf students mingled with interested adults from the Northfield community. They gathered to survey what is known about the aging mind and brain and consider the implications for individuals and society. Tables of two students and two to three adults engaged in small-group and large-group discussions. Students also volunteered at FiftyNorth for six hours during Interim.

Tables of two students and two to three adults engage in small-group and large-group discussions at FiftyNorth.

Participating students said the class is an invaluable opportunity to study both the physical process of aging and societal attitudes towards getting older.

Annika Isbell ’19 said she took the class because “so often in the field of psychology, people tend to study things we have context for — in terms of child development, lots of people have children. Many people studying aging haven’t experienced it so it’s a unique field. We won’t know if we’re right until we get there.”

Adults in the class shared the students’ enthusiasm. One senior said she joined the class because “it sounded interesting, and interacting with students is great.”

Petok led the class by asking challenging, thought-provoking questions: “What are positive and negative stereotypes around aging?”; “What are the implications of how we refer to older people?”; and “Has the wisdom of older people been side-lined in the age of Google?”

The class responded with challenging, thought-provoking answers. People were not afraid to raise their hands, voice ideas, and think out loud. Everyone made sure the atmosphere was one of respect. Laughter and smiles filled the room.

Collaborative. Curious. Compassionate. These words encompass the class created by Petok, her students, and the adults of FiftyNorth. People listened — and through that listening, they learned.