UW-La Crosse task force to integrate older adults on campus

UWL designated as an ‘age-friendly-university'

College isn’t just for the young. That’s the message from the new University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Age-Friendly University Task Force.

The task force, started by five faculty members, wants to integrate older adults by promoting intergenerational learning and making older students feel more at home on campus.

William McLoughlin, now in his 30s, used to walk the streets of UWL’s campus as an undergraduate student.

It wasn’t so long ago. After taking a few years off from college, he just graduated this past December.

“The professors are great,” McLoughlin said. “It felt more like a peer relationship, because I am older. The faculty recognized I’ve got outside experience and skills. They encouraged me to contribute in class.”

But McLoughlin found it a bit difficult to connect with other students because of the age gap.

“There’s just some distance,” he said.

“It’s very common for them to feel out of place,” associate sociology professor Dawn Norris said of older students.

Five UWL faculty members, including Norris, began efforts in the fall to make the campus more age-friendly.

“I have to say, my heart is very close to nontraditional students,” Norris said.

She was an older undergrad herself, and wants to educate faculty, staff and students on “how small things they say and do may either encourage and bring in older students, or push them away inadvertently,” Norris said said.

The term age-friendly applies to more than bringing older students into classrooms.

“(It’s) how the university can engage with older adults in our community,” said Nancy Richeson, therapeutic recreation program director and gerontologist.

Joining Norris on the task force, Richeson said that age-friendly can mean connecting students with the aging population through volunteer work, research or internships.

“Students have a lot to offer older adults, but older adults have a lot to offer students,” she said.

Norris said that the aging of Baby Boomers has created a need for jobs in many areas, including health care. UWL offers an emphasis in gerontology, or the study of aging, to all majors.

UWL is now designated as an Age-Friendly University, part of the global network led by Dublin University in Ireland.

The task force developed 10 age-friendly principles, and would like to look into creating a student center specifically for older, nontraditional students.

“I think it’s a great idea,” McLoughlin said.

He looks forward to age-friendly efforts, and believes just a shift in thinking could help.

“On both sides, from traditional students and nontraditional students,” he said. “We have more in common than we think.”

UWL will receive recognition from the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education in March and, also, at an international meeting in Dublin.