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UWM's gerontology program works to reshape perceptions of aging

retired elderly people and free time,friends talking and sitting on bench in park
Diego Cervo
Jen Kahn-Pettigrew says ageism is one form of discrimination that we're all likely to experience.

Growing older isn’t easy. Aging can bring on a host of issues, not least of which is bigotry. Ageism is a pervasive issue that is so baked into our culture, it can be difficult to spot. Jen Kahn-Pettigrew is working to change these attitudes.

Kahn-Pettigrew is a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the office of applied gerontology, as well as an AARP Disrupt Aging Classroom facilitator. The program works to challenge students’ perceptions of aging and recognize how ageism can negatively affect everyone in our community.

"Our culture definitely projects the image that aging is bad. There's ageism that's prevalent in our society in many different forms. If you look at the media, you'll see that most of the time it's geared toward people under 50," she explains.

The curriculum covers five themes — describing demographic trends and aging, defining and discussing examples of ageism, recognizing older adults as multidimensional individuals, examining students' personal stake in aging and identifying opportunities stemming from aging.

"We assess students perceptions prior to the curriculum and after the curriculum. And it has been shown that their attitudes do change, and they're able to really have a different perspective about older adults after being a part of it," Kahn-Pettigrew says.

She shares some quick tips for interacting with older adults — say "elder" instead of "elderly" and make sure to talk directly to the person, instead of the person accompanying them.

"When you hear yourself using a term that's ageist or infantilizing toward an older adults, you should take a step back and reframe that message and repeat the message in a way that isn't. It's OK to make mistakes, to trip up that's the way that we learn how to change."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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