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The epidemic of elder abuse impacts one out of every 10 older adults. To meet the urgent needs of vulnerable older adults and elder abuse victims, we must build an informed, vigorous elder justice workforce to address our systematic shortfalls, gaps in research, and cultural practices of age discrimination.
Yet despite the long-term requirements of this burgeoning crisis, little is being done to develop and a foster a new generation of advocates to carry the elder justice movement forward. Educating and training students to recognize and respond to the harmful manifestations of ageism is crucial to the future of elder abuse prevention.
To accomplish this, is important to connect students with older adults, to educate them on healthy aging, and to expose them to the wisdom and robust experience of older generations. NYCEAC’s Executive Director, Risa Breckman, has described the elder justice movement as a relay race whose future strength and success are contingent on our ability to recruit new participants. Breckman writes:
“In order to pass the baton to undergraduates, we need to engage them in conversation about the value of older adults so they will want to actively care about their welfare. We then need to discuss the complexities of elder abuse, help foster a sense of belonging to a movement, and provide a structure for them to take action.”
The Risk and Resiliency Internship Project
To reach this goal, NYCEAC has developed an undergraduate internship program in tandem with Cornell University’s Gerontology Professor Karl Pillemer and The Legacy Project, which has, through structured surveys, collected practical advice from over 1,500 older Americans. Founded in 2004 by Pillemer, The Legacy Project transforms advice from older persons and their solutions to major problems into “lessons” that people of all ages can put into practice, ranging from topics like how to be happy on a day-to-day basis, the secrets to a successful marriage, and ways to have a fulfilling career.
The two programs launched the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project (RRIP) in 2012 to bring the invaluable lessons of older adults to tomorrow’s elder justice leaders. RRIP is specifically designed to educate undergraduate students about the value of older adults as well as the different types of abuse that can occur later in life. The resiliency side of the program brings interns and older adults together through use of The Legacy Project’s structured interview method. Using this scripted protocol, interns facilitate dialogues with older adults about their lives and experience, ultimately learning about the value of older adults as an inspiring source of wisdom. The risk part of the program focuses on the many angles of elder abuse, providing interns with the opportunity to learn how to respond to elder abuse first hand by attending NYCEAC trainings, case management meetings, and multidisciplinary case conferences.
Listen to Risa and Karl discuss the partnership between NYCEAC and the Legacy Project further:
The RRIP interns also participate in special projects, such as social media initiatives, which they design in collaboration with NYCEAC. Several blog posts that thoughtfully explore important topics in the field have resulted from this student work: Summer 2012 interns, Jackie Santo and Ariana Wolk, wrote about depictions of elder abuse in the film Bernie; Summer 2013 interns Austin Lee and Laura Museau wrote a blog about the Academy Award winning film, Amour, exploring the nexus of elder abuse and caregiver burden; Laura blogged about elder abuse and ageism themes threaded through the Broadway play, Trip to Bountiful, starring 2013 Tony award winning Cicely Tyson; Summer 2014 interns covered topics including sexuality and aging, hit comedy TV show, Derek, and mandatory reporting of elder abuse. RRIP interns have also blogged for The Legacy Project, highlighting what they learned from interviews with older adults. Click on these links for blogs by Ariana ’12, Jackie ’12, Laura ’13, Austin ’13, Maddy ’14, Ryan ’14, Zoe ’14, Margo ’15, Rachel ’15, David ’16, Melanie ’16, and Emily ’17.
RRIP interns have come from universities across the country, including Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Miami University of Ohio, New York University, University of Virginia, Cornell University, York College at the City University of New York, Ithaca College, and Tulane University.
RRIP works in partnership with Ageless Alliance – a grassroots effort to build awareness about elder abuse and stop it – to work with the interns after the summer experience to conduct elder justice awareness activities back on campus.
Risk and Resiliency Internship Project Student Reflections
At the end of each summer, the RRIP student interns are asked to compose a reflection on the topic of their experience. Though each student’s summer results in unique personal insights, common themes emerge across the internship years. Below is a sample of comments from past RRIP interns.
“One of the most rewarding things I gained from the RRIP internship was the opportunity to meet so many people who also share such a passion for the aging. I was inspired by each individual working in this field, each of whom brought their own unique gifts and talents to the aging population. I was enthused to see how many different outlets of passion for the aging and jobs there are within the geriatric world. It is exciting to be reassured that following graduation, there will be many ways for me to contribute in the workforce.” – Kimmi, Summer 2017
“Slowly throughout this summer, I have discovered where I want to go, and I have answered that terrible question of ‘What should I do with my life?’ After being exposed to so many different options within the elder justice field, I realized that I was being called to social work. It is now my goal to start my own elder abuse shelter in my hometown, and start making a difference where no one else is.” – Emily, Summer 2017
“The Risk & Resiliency Internship Project educates interns about elder abuse, exposes them to agencies that help older adults, and provides them with opportunities to refine professional skills. NYCEAC treats their interns as priorities, catering the learning process to their particular interests, and giving them the chance to contribute meaningfully to the elder justice field both during and after the summer. I would recommend this program to any undergraduate student.” – Melanie, Summer 2016
“My experience with NYCEAC this summer has brought me to understand this importance of our older adults, especially when connecting with them through intimate interviews. It was a privilege to learn about the details of a senior’s lifetime in an hour’s worth of conversation, while simultaneously being dropped gems of knowledge I cannot see myself getting elsewhere. It was an emotional albeit rewarding experience becoming educated on elder abuse, a phenomenon that is clearly escaping public awareness in comparison with its counterpart, child abuse. Becoming deeply informed of this mistreatment towards our seniors can make you further appreciate this victimized (and at times, utterly helpless) population, that will require the vigilance of younger generations to amend. I now find myself calling my grandparents with the purpose of cherishing their presence and their words, before they are inevitably no longer with us.” – David, Summer 2016
“Ultimately, I feel as if I learned a secret. This secret, which shouldn’t be a secret, is about the true value of older adults in society and that they are a resource that no one should take for granted. I am lucky to have learned so much through this internship and it was an incredibly rewarding experience.” – Margo, Summer 2015
“Some of the most influential experiences this summer have involved visiting senior centers and communities; as interns, we were immersed into active and vibrant populations of older adults and professionals serving them, all of whom were excited to share their stories with us.” – Rachel, Summer 2015
“The internship provided me with amazing opportunities to visit some of the agencies throughout the city that work with older adults. One sight visit – to Casa Boricua, a senior center in the Bronx – was particularly memorable. I know that the process of aging takes on many forms, but what is often highlighted in my courses in school, in media, and in the news, is the negative side of aging. Apparently the day we went was a quiet one, but Casa Boricua was packed with people in brightly dressed clothes with even brighter personalities to match. The vibrancy and energy in the building completely enhanced and expanded my vision of aging and older adults.” – Zoe, Summer 2014
“Before becoming a Risk and Resiliency Intern I was unsure of what Elder Justice work actually looked like and who it could make a difference. Now I know Elder Justice work can be as precise as Adult Protective Services contacting law enforcement on a particular case, which is a process I explore in my blogpost on mandatory reporting. Alternatively, Elder justice work can be as broad as a public awareness campaign similar to Nancy Oatts’ blog ‘My Neighbor Miss D.’ I am grateful for the opportunity I had to see the inner workings of NYCEAC and its partners and to be a witness to the critical work they are doing for the Elder Justice Movement.” – Ryan, Summer 2014
“In particular, my work with the Legacy Project has been amazing in driving my passion to help older adults. Elders are a vital resource and are full of stories and wisdom that people from all walks of life can benefit from. I think that all students my age should be encouraged to read 30 Lessons for Living or at least read a few posts on the Legacy Project blog because realizing that older adults are such a vital resource helps fuel the fire needed to gain more advocates.” – Madeline, Summer 2014
“Although I have a background in and passion for gerontology, I had no idea how much I would gain from my summer at the NYC Elder Abuse Center. I realized that, even with my aging background, I had so much to learn about ageism and elder abuse! …The visits we made to organizations in the community provided me with invaluable insight into the different responses to elder abuse and programs that exist. … Another takeaway I had about the elder justice field was the multidisciplinary nature of the work. Through my visits to community organizations, I met and interacted with professionals from all walks of life. They all address elder abuse in their own particular way. … As I move forward within this field, and continue witnessing the overwhelming work that needs to be done, I know that alongside me will be others working to achieve my same goals of addressing the underlying problems that older adults face so that they may age with dignity and respect.” – Austin, Summer 2013
“My goal was to leave the summer with a newfound appreciation for the elderly and I feel that I’ve accomplished this. During the interviews I conducted this summer using The Legacy Project’s interview questions, I was struck by the life lessons I learned, which will help me as I think about my own future. … My internship experience [also] reinforced several important lessons about the way we, as a society, interact with older adults. There is a general sense of undervaluing the contributions and importance of older adults. …I look forward to expanding my knowledge on aging issues and working to raise awareness of the importance of older adults in our society.” – Laura, Summer 2013
“Today’s undergraduates are tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, social workers, nurses, legislators and advocates. It is important that students become informed about how valuable older adults are to society and about elder abuse and its devastating effects at this point in their education in order to bring rise to an informed era of professionals in the aging field. The Risk and Resiliency Internship Project is a good beginning.” – Jackie and Ariana, Summer 2012
Extended reflections from RRIP students can be found in the blog posts about Summer 2013 and Summer 2014. Additionally, in the Fall of 2013, Ariana, Austin and Laura sat down with NYCEAC to speak further about their RRIP experiences. Listen to their thoughts and learn more about the internship here: