Cedar Crest residents Deborah Greenberg (left) and Nina Romano (center) talk with student Nicole Fischbach ’16.

Lessons of a Lifetime

Class lets retirees share insights of aging with gerontology students

Cedar Crest residents Deborah Greenberg (left) and Nina Romano (center) talk with student Nicole Fischbach ’16.

Something special is happening at a retirement community not too far from campus. Gerontology students from Montclair State are learning firsthand what it means to grow old, and in the process, they’re finding out that with age comes wisdom – and some fun.

The students are part of a class taught by Family and Child Studies Assistant Professor Teresa Keeler, and each semester they visit the Cedar Crest retirement community in Pompton Plains, where they have a no-holds-barred question-and-answer session with a group of residents whose enthusiasm for living has not diminished with age.

Nina Romano sitting with Nicole Fischbach ’16.
Gerontology student Nicole Fischbach ’16 and resident Nina Romano bond.

“One of my favorite questions came from a student who had a lot of tattoos,” says Nina Romano, a Cedar Crest table tennis competitor who plays three times a week and will only divulge that she’s over 80 years old. “She asked, ‘How do you feel about your wrinkles and losing your looks?’ and I said, ‘Consider our wrinkles like your tattoos.’”

Questions about life and the aging process are at the heart of this group discussion billed on the syllabus as “What You Wanted to Know About Your Grandparents but Were Afraid to Ask.” True to its title, no topic is off limits.

“There’s always one student who asks about our sex lives,” says 76-year-old career counselor and amateur playwright Deborah Greenberg.

“Some of the students get embarrassed over that question,” says Inge Goldstein, an 86-year-old former social worker and social services director.

“But they’re all interested in the answers,” laughs Diane O’Brien, an 80-year-old former teacher and librarian.

“So am I!” says Goldstein.

A new perspective on aging

Prior to meeting the Cedar Crest residents, family studies major Nicole Fischbach, who graduates in May 2016, had never spent much time with active senior citizens. Her experience was limited to her Japanese grandparents, who speak limited English, and to sick and bedridden residents of a nursing home, where she worked in the kitchen. She added gerontology as a minor as a way to hedge her bets for future job prospects, and the class trip to the retirement community made her glad she did.

“You really get to see the spectrum at Cedar Crest. The retirees we met with are very active. They travel; they’re still involved socially and within the community. But there are also some residents in the same age group who aren’t,” Fischbach says. “It’s interesting to see the range of people to work with among that population.”

The collaboration between this volunteer group of residents and the gerontology classes at Montclair State allows each generation to learn about the other and to share experiences they would otherwise never have.

Back in 2008, Cedar Crest resident Suzanne Hawes’ women’s group was looking for opportunities to give back to the community – and to young people in particular. The group – which includes former professionals such as social workers, a career counselor, a librarian, a teacher, two university deans and the first female corporate vice president of Bristol-Myers Squibb – are an active bunch with a lot of life experiences to share.

“Our group was social initially, but it evolved that we wanted to do something because we all had talents,” says Hawes. “We all wanted to make this contribution to young people and expose them to the aging process.”

As a former public health professor and dean, Hawes saw the opportunity to be of service to a gerontology program at a local university. So she contacted Christine Price, who at the time was an associate professor and the coordinator of the gerontology program at Montclair State.

The meetings became part of the “Families in Later Life” gerontology class and were an immediate hit with everyone.

“The impact the residents have had on the students is phenomenal,” says Price, who now lives in North Carolina. “I was surprised at times by how much the students were affected. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever had an in-depth conversation with an older adult.”

Getting real

For O’Brien, the group discussion is the highlight of the students’ visit. “Their questions are eye-opening and sometimes way beyond their years,” she says.

Most questions focus on the emotional, mental and physical aspects of aging – such as what it’s like to have more time behind them than ahead and how that affects the way they live. Mostly, these active seniors say, they don’t feel much different than they did decades ago, except for tiring more easily and being more aware of not taking anything for granted.

Deborah Greenberg laughs with Cedar Crest employees Kelli Bollen ’12 (center) and Lauren Corrente ’12.
Deborah Greenberg laughs with Cedar Crest employees Kelli Bollen ’12 (center) and Lauren Corrente ’12.

“I feel as if I’m in my prime,” says O’Brien. “I know that must sound silly at this age, but I’m fortunate to be in good health, living in a good place and doing whatever I want each day. But I know all of that could change in an instant. Each day is a treasure to be savored.”

“We try to stress that taking care of yourself when you’re young means that you can probably have a healthier, better retirement and old age.”

Suzanne Hawes

Sometimes the seniors offer unsolicited advice. “We try to stress that taking care of yourself when you’re young means that you can probably have a healthier, better retirement and old age,” says Hawes. Prior to meeting with the residents, the students work closely with Keeler to develop their questions. After the visit, which this year took place during Careers in Aging Week in April, students write papers reflecting on the experience and what they’ve learned. They are also assigned to interview an older person and some interview seniors from Cedar Crest.

“The students ask about getting older, family, relationships, who is dating whom, all different types of questions,” says Keeler. “I remind them that they have to be on their toes as they prepare their questions because these residents are not frail individuals – they’re sharp.”

The residents enjoy the discussions just as much as the students do.

“That program is fun,” says Goldstein. “The students are in a phase of life where everything is positive and future-oriented. There’s so much energy. I just love it.”

Cedar Crest residents discuss their involvement with the gerontology class.
Cedar Crest residents discuss their involvement with the gerontology class.

Greenberg agrees, “Each year, I’m always eager to do it again. The students are always enthusiastic and interested. For me, it’s enlightening because I don’t have younger people that age in my life.”

While the future stretches far ahead for the young people, the seniors say being older has its advantages. “There’s more freedom and more time to be introspective,” says Romano, the table tennis champ. “Young people have obligations that I don’t have. I’m freer to have more time for myself to do whatever I want.”

Turning internships into jobs

The relationship between Montclair State’s gerontology program and Cedar Crest goes deeper than this class collaboration. Cedar Crest employees Kelli Bollen and Lauren Corrente, both alumnae, have also benefited from the wisdom of the residents. Both completed internships there before graduating in 2012 and taking full-time positions working with the residents.

“I came to Cedar Crest and just fell in love with it,” Bollen says. “Before my internship here I didn’t know this type of position existed.”

Lauren Corrente ’12 laughing and having discussion with Cedar Crest residents.
Resident Inge Goldstein (center) participates in a group discussion between students and residents.

Bollen, who earned a degree in family and child studies with a concentration in gerontology, says that her internship at Cedar Crest gave her the practical, real-world experience she needed to work in the field.

“As much as I learned in my gerontology classes, I learned even more from my internship with all of the hands-on experience,” says Bollen, Cedar Crest’s community resources coordinator, who oversees resident clubs and activities. She helped them create a 2015 pin-up calendar as a fundraiser, in the style of the movie Calendar Girls. The calendars – sales from which raised more than $17,000 – went viral, were shipped all over the world and were mentioned by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. “The residents were thrilled,” she says.

As the number of Americans over the age of 65 grows, so do the career opportunities available to students who’ve studied gerontology.

Corrente, who minored in gerontology, now works at Cedar Crest full time as its philanthropy manager. “Before I started my internship here I didn’t know what to expect,” Corrente says. “But I fell in love with the residents at Cedar Crest.”

Close-up of Lauren Corrente ’12 chatting with Cedar Crest residents.
Residents Deborah Greenberg (left) and Inge Goldstein (right) listen as Cedar Crest employee Lauren Corrente ’12 (center) comments during a lively discussion.

For Fischbach, the visits with the Cedar Crest residents taught her lessons she’ll take with her throughout her life and career, including how much pride older people take in their children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments.

“That let me know how my grandparents might feel about me,” she says. “It also taught me the importance of treating older adults with respect and really being aware of what they’re going through and the stereotypes they may face.”

Photo of Cedar Crest resident Diane O'Brien.
Cedar Crest resident Diane O’Brien

Fischbach’s takeaways are exactly what Keeler hopes her students will gain from their time at Cedar Crest.

“I hope that even the students who are thinking of different career paths and working with different populations still understand the significance of this population and phase of life for all of us,” says Keeler.

“And if they decide to work in the field, even better.”