Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

A lived experience: Pursuing a career in aging while residing with older adults

Written by Annie Wright, MSOT ‘20, School of Medicine

I am currently an occupational therapy student pursuing a Master’s degree. My current goal is to work in a community setting on the population level, which includes all ages. I haven’t narrowed my passion down to a specific topic yet, but I’m hoping that my future work will help prevent diseases and disorders starting in early stages of life, which will eventually trickle down to older adults. Since attending OT school, I have been given the unique opportunity to be a “student-in-residence” at an independent living facility in St. Louis. I have been able to engage with older adults through my research and my position at the facility where I currently reside. As a result, I think my comfort level has increased and I would like to work towards including the aging population in my career.

As a young adult residing at an independent living facility for older adults, I have gained a different perspective of COVID-19 and its impact, compared with most students my age. I feel like I am on the front-lines of the pandemic. I don’t mean to suggest that I am doing anywhere near the hard work that medical professionals are currently doing, but I feel that I have a unique position to witness the direct effects of the crisis. The residence where I live began precautionary measures a little ahead of everyone else and from the start, I personally felt an increased burden to be careful because I live in a building filled with people more vulnerable to this virus. The burden is now especially great because my fellow student-in-resident has returned home and I am the only one in our building in this unique situation.

First restricted were social events, which is my primary duty at the facility, and my fellow student and I did our best to make each event as sanitary as possible. That didn’t work out and soon the restrictions became even tighter. Our concern for the other residents grew as we were aware that the effects of social isolation, coupled the physical ramifications of sitting down all day and decreased exercise posed a threat to the lives of our fellow residents. I felt personally responsible for the latter because I offered fitness and yoga classes three times a week, but I felt that I couldn’t continue to provide classes electronically because the majority of participants did not have the required technological resources to participate.

Our social distancing measures seem to have worked and I don’t believe that the pandemic has had the impact on residents that we feared. There were some complaints about not being able to attend events and the lag in daily operations like meal delivery and maintenance, but for the most part people seem to be living as usual. Those who actively seek engagement and exercise on their own continue to find alternative ways to interact and stay physically active, and those who prefer to never set foot outside of their apartments are continuing to stay in. Those who fall in the middle because they rely on the events to interact and engage with others feel the most impact. I have made attempts to reach those people via flyers with information on ways to engage. These include walking to the park, which is across the street, and signing up to receive phone calls from college students. It is difficult to assess whether or not these suggestions are useful without person-to-person contact. One definite positive outcome of this is that interest in technology has been expedited. I have received more requests now for help with Skype, Zoom, and mobile devices than ever before.

Although it has been, at the very least, inconvenient for me to be living in an independent living facility during this crisis, I am glad that I am still here to provide whatever services I can. I wouldn’t label myself an essential worker by any means, but I do think that I play an important role in lifting spirits and fixing a few computers.

I hope that by sharing my experience, I have provided evidence for the benefit of placing young adults in direct contact with the aging population. For those considering working in the field of aging, I highly recommend finding a similar placement, because there really is no experience like lived experience. Furthermore, I hope that the worldwide focus on the devastating effects of COVID-19 specifically on the aging population has increased interest in the field of aging.