Gero-Punk Metalogue: All filled up and large inside

Hello there, happy Thursday!

What’s going on?

Had any provocative experiences lately? How about staggering new insights? Make any new friends? Break any habits? Change your mind? Surprise yourself? Embark on an adventure? Celebrate the mundane? Invite your inner 8 year old over for a play-date? Toast to the bittersweet complexities of this life with your future older self?

Whatever you’ve been up to, I hope you are swell.

As for me, I’m teaching (and learning) a lot this term.

One of the courses I get to teach is Learning: A Fundamental Human Process.  Kind of a funny title, isn’t it (I inherited the course)? But it is also a title that contains a deep truth: We humans are always in a state of learning, whether we know it or not, whether we bring intentionality to our learning or we don’t.  I kept the title when I inherited the course but I started from scratch and redesigned it from the ground up.  It is a fully on-line 11-week course. The primary focus is learning in adulthood, including in old age. We have one assigned text that we use for the first few weeks (Learning in adulthood, by Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner); after that, what we read is determined by questions generated by students in the course.

You see, the course is designed around a mash-up of principles gathered from participatory inquiry; critical social theory; andragogy, geragogy, and heutagogy; and social constructivism.  I know, I just threw a bunch of big words at you, but not so as to obfuscate or be a smarty-pants, but to, perhaps, pique your interest! (Nested glossary, anyone?) And to prove to you that I only have good intentions, I’ll translate the serious concepts, as any self-respecting gero-punk should be willing to do. (Why do concepts take themselves so darn seriously?)

Translation: I’ve choreographed the course in such a way as to create a learning community in which all members (students, teacher, and teaching assistant) are simultaneously students and teachers — co-learners and experts about our own experiences, and legitimate makers of meaning and knowledge.  The learning projects are collaborative and layered, unfolding over many weeks. The topics for discussion emerge from the members of the learning community; as the “professor,” I offer either meta-questions — questions that instigate deep reflection and critical analysis of the readings, not necessarily about the content of the readings per se – and I offer microscopic, auto-ethnographic questions – questions that tap into each individual’s experiences as a learner. But what happens next depends on where everyone else decides to move the discussion. We think together, we share stories, we critically reflect on the assigned readings, we bring in outside sources, we ask one another questions.  Oh, and there’s a really important commitment to praxis woven throughout everything we do: How do we go about enacting the stuff we are reading about and discussing and what  happens when we do?

Part of my praxis is to inject any learning experience I can with gero-punk principles. As you might know (or suspect), I’m a proponent of infusing aging awareness “across the curriculum” (and at all levels of education), as well as taking all of this stuff to the streets – public gerontology, gero-punk style! As well, I aspire to be present to natural moments when a conversation about aging and later life and being old might happen.

So, I thought I’d share with you a recent discussion thread from the Learning course, a conversation between me, Art Burke (a student in the course), and Stephanie Lillegard (the teaching assistant for the course). Art is a student in Human Studies, a veteran, and a newish dad. After he completes his undergraduate degree he plans to become a social worker.  Stephanie is in the last year of her interdisciplinary studies degree; she took Learning last year and I invited her back this year to serve as teaching assistant. She’s a writer, community educator, mother of two adult children, and is in the middle of a muddle about what’s next for her.

Here’s our conversation:

Art: Rather than aging itself being the cause of a decline in intellectual ability, it was suggested in the reading that it may be caused by misuse or lack of use, which kind of goes with last week’s post about our society’s treatment of the elderly. I wonder how much of what we think of as the defining characteristics of old age, such as forgetfulness, are actually caused by the conditions we have created for our elderly.   If the loss of intelligence is mostly attributable to lack of use, obviously we, as a society, need to find a way to keep intelligence and learning in active use by people of all ages. Even if definitive research were to show that intellectual decline is directly caused by aging, creating an environment that the elderly could thrive and learn as long as possible in would be beneficial to the elderly and society.

Merriam et al. (2007) write, “Every person’s brain is as unique as their face” (p. 416). I found this information to be fascinating, and it explains why understanding the brain is so difficult. At this point, it seems that most definitive statements on the relationship between learning and the brain are actually not definitive. This chapter seems to define cognitive behavior as a product of the brain only, and the mind is explained as actually a part of the brain. To me, it seems a bit contradictory to state that the scientific community does not really know how the brain works, but that they do know that it does a and b, so it must do c and d.  Bottom line, until I see definitive and empirical research that directly proves the brain is responsible for all of our functioning, I am going to continue to hold onto the idea that all of our functioning is an integrative process, which consists of many, many different parts of a whole.

This week’s chapter has given me valuable information about how intelligence actually, or might, function in adults. I found the research on intelligence and aging highly insightful. As a result of this information, I will try to stimulate my older friends’ intelligence whenever possible, and I will also try to spread the idea that learning is happening from birth to death. From interactions with many awesome older folks throughout my life, I always knew that any stereotype about people becoming stupid and slow with age was absolutely false, and knowing that research actually backs it up, in some cases, is really satisfying.

As far as my insights on the brain, I think I will continue to operate under the assumption that human learning and functioning is an integrative process. If someone I knew was to have a brain injury, and the prognosis was that they would not be able speak again, I would have faith in the fact that everyone’s brain is mapped a little differently. Basically, until evidence proves otherwise, I will not assume specific parts of the brain are solely responsible for any one function.

Isn’t the idea of an “intelligence gene” really scary? As the chapters discussed, intelligence is totally subjective, and because there are so many theories on multiple types of intelligence, such as Gardner’s multiple intelligence, I don’t see how the scientific community would agree on any one gene being responsible for intelligence. Once again, I think learning is an integrative process with many, many variables, and I really believe that every single human being is uniquely intelligent in their own way. The field of genetics really scares me sometimes – what about you guys?

Jenny: Art, there’s so much about your post that has my mind excited! Thank you!

You are a gero-punk in the making! You are seeing through ageist stereotypes and engaging in critical thinking about aging and old age. You are spot-on that expectation shapes behavior. To whit: If there are societal expectations that older adults will have failing memory, become more conservative, and sexless, then not only will younger people internalize these ageist stereotypes, but older adults will as well, thus expecting that all of these things are normal and to be expected.

There’s a further dilemma–what happens when an older adult doesn’t manifest failing memory, gets more radical, and still enjoys sexual intimacy? They may be seen by others as extraordinary and abnormal simultaneously. And the extent to which they have a hardy sense of self, they might ignore the societal messages, or, if they don’t have the ability to resist ageist stereotypes, they might wonder if there’s something wrong with them.

I’m convinced as a gerontologist that it is always better to make the mistake of being optimistic and expecting that development continues until we go back to the stars, rather than expecting that the last third of life is all about decline and decrepitude

Stephanie: Art, I’d like to echo what Jenny says about how you’re challenging the stereotypes.

I have seen over and over that the very young, the very old, persons with disabilities of some sort (and that counts the “disabilities” that are just ways of being in the world that don’t match up with expectations) … well, they’re not Producers, y’know? They’re people who don’t “make money” (who “makes” money anyway? What a silly phrase that is!) – they’re not productive in a work work work and get more and more pay kind of way.

In fact, if, as you age, you want LESS of the “success” model for your life, then there’s just something quaint and weird and doddery about you, and in our culture at least, no one seems to know what to do with that person.

So, the field of genetics doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the for-profit research and development and marketing that might be done with genetics (just as it is with everything else). It’s not intelligence that’s scary to me, or genetics, or science of any kind, but a kind of opposite of those things (hmm! I just put this together, thinking about your questions here – thank you!). It’s the smaller life that scares me. The smaller values. The constricted viewpoint on the world that sees “old” as no longer useful and “different” as uncooperative at least, and burdensome at most. In truth, the only thing about it I find scary is the disregard for individuality and its intersection with the medical establishment.

I know a lot of old people (people in their 80’s and 90’s) who are interested, interesting, and as deep and wise and calm as an ocean, or as fun and quick and happy as the sun.

They’re not gloomy or used up. They’re all filled up. They’re large inside.

About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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