By Maggie Syme, PhD, MPH (Member, APA Committee on Aging & Assistant Professor of Gerontology, Kansas State University)
In the past year, high school psychology students embarked upon an essay to describe an “Aging World,” the theme of this year’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) annual essay competition for high school psychology students. Ultimately, four students from high schools around the world were named winners, but the broader impact was that a bevy of young people learned about how to age well and how to support this goal for our current aging population. The potential contribution of younger to older generations is enormous, and it has been truly inspiring to see the passion and ingenuity with which these high school students approach an aging world.
It was so inspiring that the APA Committee on Aging, which provided input to this year’s TOPSS competition, interviewed the essay winners. The winners provided insight into their experience and the implications for the psychology of aging.
Three thousand words on aging—this is no easy task. Just ask our winners. Each winning student (see below for names and affiliations) commented on the magnitude of the project, and some reflected on how their peers shied away from the task. Yet, each one appreciated the challenge and found clear benefits to participating.
Poorvi Dua, now at University of California – Berkeley, indicated that the size did not intimidate her, but instead the challenge was intriguing.
“The second [my teacher] mentioned it I got really excited, and knew if I put work into this it would be the coolest thing.”
Wendi Ji, a senior at Shen Zhen College of International Education, also saw the importance of the topic:
“I usually don’t want to participate in essay contests…but the topic really grabbed my attention.”
Grace Rhine, now a freshman at Millersville University, stated that the challenge was part of her motivation for doing the essay:
“I really wanted to prepare myself for the writings in college that I would do…It was really helpful for me.”
Similarly, Sophia Song, a senior at Seoul International School, indicated that the contest was a “golden opportunity” and further stated,
“I learned a lot about how to format a research paper, which will help me a lot later on.”
The winners were especially thankful for their high school psychology teachers in providing the opportunity. Several mentioned their teachers as an integral source of support in the process, and were appreciative of the formatting guidance, as this was the first APA research paper most had written. When asked about other sources of inspiration and guidance, several mentioned their grandparents or other key figures in their lives who had illustrated the importance of healthy aging.
“I thought often about them [grandparents] in my essay, and I asked them a lot about the concepts I explored to see if it was applicable to them.” Grace also pointed to the influence of her grandparents stating, “I’m really close with all my grandparents, and I thought about how their life will be in the future as they age and want them to have a good life.”
Wendi spoke about her grandparents as “fighters,” stating,
“They had to fight off against all the negative images they had seen in the media and stereotyping comments about them. [A family member] used the ‘Because you are old…’ a lot. But the truth is, my grandparents never listen when the sentence starts with those words.”
In contrast, Poorvi mentioned that she was highly influenced by her English teacher (and mentor), whose wife developed Alzheimer’s disease during Poorvi’s high school career.
“I saw the process he was going through and the mental toll it took on him. And, just how big it became…That really inspired me to write this essay, to see how we can improve the aging process.”
In fact, Poorvi is now studying molecular biology and psychology in college with hopes to go to medical school and do research on neurobiology, the brain, and Alzheimer’s. She reported that she has joined a local club at UC-Berkeley, Action for Alzheimer’s, and will be volunteering in a care center as part of the club activities.
The other winners also mentioned an intention to “follow up” on aging in some way. Grace, who is studying to be an art therapist, wants to be able to help people across the lifespan through her work. Sophia aims to take a few aging-related courses in psychology when she goes to college. Wendi also indicated her intent for continuing to study aging.
“After researching the aging topic, I find it very hard to just forget about it and go on studying other subjects, just because aging is such an important issue. I want to dedicate myself to helping elderly citizens fight off the negative mass media images and stereotypes.”
When talking about the aging-specific aspects of the essay, each winner felt they grasped key points about healthy aging as a result.
For example, Poorvi was captivated by the life course perspective and the real-life impact of psychological and social concepts on biological aging.
“One thing that really surprised me was how much of your early life can play a role in the process of aging. I knew you should exercise and eat healthy, but these studies actually show a direct correlation between things like stress and the length of telomeres in your DNA.”
“I never really thought about it [aging] before, more than just the biological standpoint. Here, I thought about the different experiences people have in retirement, moving into a nursing home, and the impact on that person.”
Sophia also commented on broadening her understanding of aging.
“One thing that stood out to me was subjective happiness. We can help older adults have this through gaining independence, autonomy, and from the simplest things like having transportation.”
Wendi focused on the psychological impact on healthy aging, stating,
“The overall take-away message was most of the time people had choices, they had choices to lead a healthy and positive life in their 60s and 70s. But the choices originate from their psychology, their attitude and ways of interpreting life events. If we can help them realize the choices and encourage them to make the ones beneficial to their physical and mental health, the word ‘aging’ may finally be free of associated negative emotions fear and worry.”
The winners were asked to consider why people their age (or younger) should be interested in aging. What’s the need, if it is decades away?
“It’s going to happen to all of us, sooner or later,” stated Grace.
Similarly, Poorvi asserted,
“Every single day, every single second that you are alive, you are aging. You have to be conscious of the choices you are making now because they will play a role down the line. Very small things you wouldn’t think play a role, the effects are amplified as you go along.”
Sophia agreed, stating,
“Aging research is an investment for us as we grow up. It’s crucial to understand where we will be in a few decades.”
Wendi emphasized that our actions as younger people make an impact on today’s older adults.
“Young people’s attitude and actions towards elderly citizens impose a significant influence upon the expectations and attitudes of elderly people towards aging.” She further stated that, “as responsible citizens, young people should care and help improve the welfare of this very important group who have contributed so much to our society.”
Each winner also specified what people in younger generations could (and should) be doing to get involved with aging issues. All of them suggested methods on a larger scale (e.g., volunteering, getting involved in research), but they also mentioned person-level interventions.
“The easiest way is to get a more personal connection with your grandparents, and ask them about aging in general and how each of these things apply to them,” suggested Sophia.
The “gap” between older and younger generations was mentioned by Poorvi, stating,
“There’s very young people, and there’s the very old and it feels marginalized. It is a good idea to get them more involved, and there are studies about this. It is better for people in older care homes if they’re surrounded by young/lively people; it boosts their psychological health.”
Grace also emphasized the role of personal, intergenerational connections by stating,
“Getting younger people involved in different community programs can integrate the different generations. I’m really involved in my church, and there is a large older population there. I like to get to know them and spend time with them.”
“They can start by not stereotyping the elderly as ‘lonely, grumpy, and socially withdrawn,’ and hopefully convince others to do the same.” She also suggested the importance of family support for our older relatives. “Consider spending more family time with elderly members in the family. They have the most wisdom and life experience, not to mention the importance of family support for elderly people.”
Overall, the essay impacted each of these students in unique ways. Some gained much-needed college preparation, and gained self-efficacy after tackling that ever-challenging APA formatting. Some solidified a previous interest into a potential career pathway. But each one came away with a more profound understanding of healthy aging and the immediate impacts on society. This is summed up in the following from Poorvi:
“Writing this essay made me realize how important this field of study is…All the research in this field is incredibly important because every study is going to be the scientific background for which more programs and laws are created that are geared toward helping older people. It’s underappreciated, but it’s incredibly important in our society because it is so fundamental.”
The four winning essays are available to download and read here: http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/topss/student-competition.aspx. We encourage you to take a look at how these high schools students have captured the challenges and solutions to aging well in our current world.
Of note, TOPSS provides students with a writing contest opportunity annually. See this link for guidelines and previous award winners. They also have an award for high school psychology teachers that have innovative lesson plans in psychology. See http://www.apa.org/about/awards/teaching-excellence.aspx for more information and how to nominate your teacher and/or colleague for this award.
2017 Essay Winners
Poorvi Dua (Xavier College Preparatory; Phoenix, AZ)
Grace Rhine (Penn Manor High School; Millersville, PA)
Sophia Song (Seoul International School; Seoul, South Korea)
Wendi Ji (Shen Zhen College of International Education, Guandong, China)
Maggie Syme, PhD, is an assistant professor in gerontology in the Center on Aging and serves as a faculty member in the School of Family Studies and Human Ecology at Kansas State University. Her background is in counseling psychology and public health, with a doctoral degree from the University of Kansas and MPH from San Diego State University. Her clinical postdoctoral training was concentrated in geropsychology and neuropsychology as well as a research postdoc in cancer health disparities and aging. Prior to coming to K-State, Dr. Syme was a Research Assistant Professor at San Diego State University working on grant-funded research from the Alzheimer’s Association on sexual decision-making among cognitively compromised older adults. Her research interests are centered on sexual health in later life and across the lifespan, sexual decision-making in long-term care residents, and person-centered long-term care.