August 14, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 31

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'Positively Aging' curriculum uses science to instruct teachers, youth about aging

To many young people, anyone older than 18 is "old." Most young people regard themselves as invincible—they almost never think about growing old.

This is where "Positively Aging®" steps in, explaining that aging is a universal process that affects everyone. On July 28, the Aging Research and Education Center (AREC) program attained a second Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA)—$750,000 for another three years—from the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant is jointly sponsored by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research and the National Institute on Aging. To date, Positively Aging has brought expertise from the AREC to students in 15 middle schools in San Antonio.

"Compared with other investigator-initiated federal grants, ours is relatively small. Our data, however, demonstrate our program’s effectiveness in teaching teachers how to incorporate aging as part of their curricula. The receipt of the second SEPA grant is in recognition of the work accomplished during the first cycle," said Dr. Michael Lichtenstein, Positively Aging’s principal investigator and a professor in UTHSC’s Department of Medicine. "Positively Aging activities, such as having students draw pictures of what they think a typical older person looks like, can move children to a more positive and affirming view of aging. In our evaluation study, students in the school that used our teaching materials were more than twice as likely to draw images of active, socially engaged elders, compared to those that did not use the materials. In the control school there were more pictures of frail, dependent, nursing-home-bound elders."

While the emphasis of the program is to have an impact on today’s youth and their view of aging, its interdisciplinary lesson plans infuse aging into science, math, language arts, social studies, history, reading and physical education. A central goal is to use examples from gerontology to teach essential curricular elements that help students academically and improve their health awareness.

Photo. Linda Pruski reviews rules of board game with teachers.

Linda Pruski (standing), Positively Aging's educational development specialist, reviews the rules of the board game "OS Costs: Banking on Healthy Bones," with Freer High School teachers Ernie and Mollie Bustamante.

"Positively Aging’s intent is to help keep students in science and math educational tracks and facilitate their science literacy," said Dr. Lichtenstein about the program’s long-range goals. "Through this program, they learn to recognize life events associated with aging across the life span by investigating health promotion and disease prevention behaviors that affect quality of life. Students also learn to appreciate diversity among seniors and to confront ethical issues associated with aging."

During the first SEPA grant, the program team focused on evaluation of materials. During the second grant, plans call for controlled trial testing of different dissemination methods in four San Antonio middle schools.

"With our partners in the Office of Educational Resources, we are developing an interactive Web site to support using our materials via distance learning," said Dr. Lichtenstein. "During the school year, the dissemination will contrast electronic support alone through the Web site with electronic support plus in-school personal visits and guidance by our staff. We’ll test the hypothesis that in-school personal support facilitates dissemination of the Positively Aging materials beyond what can be achieved by computer-based distance electronic support alone."

If electronic support alone proves to be sufficient for effective dissemination, said Dr. Lichtenstein, it will provide a more cost-effective model for dissemination beyond San Antonio.

Some may question the use of gerontology as a basis for educational materials. AREC staff point to the parallels between the young and elderly. "There are many similarities between middle school students and the elderly," said former seventh-grade teacher Linda Pruski, Positively Aging’s educational development specialist. "Young people seek to progressively separate from their families, becoming more independent. The older individuals are trying to retain their independence.

Middle school students are looking forward to learning how to drive while the elderly want to keep their driving privileges. We have always felt that these two groups of people are treated by society in similar ways—there’s a balance between supporting individual autonomy and promoting safety."

Pruski and teacher helpers recently completed a summer seminar instructing teachers on how to use the Positively Aging materials in their classrooms.

Young students, though, usually can’t or don’t want to identify with the process of growing old. To help educators smoothly infuse the aging aspect into their curricula and assist young individuals to make positive life choices, the AREC conducted "Stealth Gerontology™," a teacher in-service workshop, June 12–23 at the Parman Conference Center.

Aging of America

According to the AREC, Texas ranks fourth in the United States in the number of residents age 65 and older. The elderly population is expected to increase by 17 percent, from 33.5 million in 1995 to 39.4 million in 2010, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services special report. And from 2010 to 2030, the population age 65 and older is expected to grow by 75 percent to more than 69 million people.

Baby boomers are at the crest of this demographic wave. The AREC is staying ahead of the trend with Positively Aging materials plus the Stealth Gerontology training program—tools that can help teachers, students and families learn about healthy aging.

"Although we’re still a youth-oriented culture, everybody ages," said Pruski, who with Dr. Lichtenstein began a partnership among the Northside Independent School District, the UTHSC and the AREC in 1993. "We wanted to raise awareness of the needs of the older population. So we began with middle school students because they generally learn like elementary students. High school students get a little too busy being sophisticated, being cool."

During Stealth Gerontology, 30 teachers learned about nutrition and diet, the cultural differences pertaining to growing older, theories of aging, intergenerational friendships, family trees, the brain, Alzheimer’s disease, vision and hearing problems, diabetes, diversity among the aged, bone development and osteoporosis, life expectancy and the aging world. Numerous interactive activities, part of the Positively Aging materials, stimulated the teachers’ creative and critical thinking processes.

Making an impact

Hands-on training seems to be the preferred process for making an impact. "Children really get into ‘Os Costs®,’ our board game that teaches students about bone gain and loss," said Pruski, referring to one of the hands-on methods used to involve students. "But adults get into it also. They’re up over the table rolling the dice."

Depending on what they roll, players may end up getting a fate or choice card in "Os Costs: Banking on Healthy Bones." The board game is divided into green, yellow and red sections representing a different stage in bone development from age 1 to 100. The green section corresponds to an overall increase in bone mass from infancy to 25 years old, yellow is the maintenance period when increase in bone mass balances with decrease from 26 to 40 years old, and red represents a gradual decrease in bone mass from 41 to 100 years old.

"With the fate cards, you could end up drawing a card that describes you as being a small-framed, Anglo woman and you have to pay 200 ‘Osteo-coins’ because this is the group most likely to have osteoporosis," said Pruski. "With the choice cards, students learn about osteoporosis and to make good choices."

All three sections have cards that are appropriate for the age group represented by the color. For example, the green cards contain issues teens may experience that could affect their bones, such as eating disorders, poor eating habits, smoking and drinking alcohol. The red cards cause students to consider correcting lifestyle choices seemingly more pertinent to older people.

Other hands-on activities include two "Blaster/Claster Wheels" that teach the function of osteoblasts and osteoclasts in bone remodeling. Osteoblasts make new bone whereas osteoclasts break it down. There’s also "Homunculus Man," a paper cutout of the human form used to teach how neurons and motor neurons send and receive messages to the brain.