Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.


Intergenerational Service-Learning


Judy L. Singleton, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio


Judy L. Singleton, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Social Work and Sociology.



In an effort to infuse gerontological content throughout a BSW curriculum, a series of mandated service-learning assignments was implemented to expose social work majors to work with older adults as well as offer real-life settings in which to apply their skills. The development and implementation of those assignments in agency settings is described in this paper.  Additionally, the outcomes are presented in terms of the services and benefits provided, and the degree of satisfaction by the agencies and students with this pedagogical method.



Research has shown that little or no gerontology content has been infused in most BSW programs (Scharlach et al., 2000).  Yet a projected need for 60,000 – 70,000 social workers to work with older adults by 2010 has been cited (National Institute on Aging, 1987).  Studies also demonstrate students’ low interest in working with older adults (Kane, 1999; Berenbaum, 2000; Paton, Sar, Barber, & Holland, 2001).  However, Piner (1997) found that when students had the opportunity to apply concepts learned in class with service-learning, their future career plans were more likely to include older adults.  Another study showed that students who were assigned intergenerational service-learning projects were more likely than others to indicate that working with older adults would be interesting (Dorfman, Murty, Ingram, & Evans, 2002).


As educators, we have a twofold challenge: to equip our BSW students with the competencies to confront whatever situations they may face with an aging population, and to stimulate interest in working with older adults. In an attempt to address these challenges, the College of Mount St. Joseph, a small liberal arts and sciences college located in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, implemented a series of mandated service-learning opportunities for BSW students not only to expose all of our majors to social work with older adults, but also to offer real-life settings to apply classroom knowledge. As a generalist program, our objective is not to have students specialize in aging studies, but rather to make certain that no social work major graduates without a solid foundation in aging competencies. Even if students do not pursue a career in aging or a masters in a gerontology concentration, these mandated service-learning assignments have provided each student with experiential learning in the field of aging.


This required service-learning approach was one of several innovations made to this college’s BSW program in a three-year venture, the Geriatric Enrichment in Social Work Education Project (GeroRich), funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation in conjunction with the Council on Social Work Education. Initiated in 2002, this national project funded sixty-seven baccalaureate, masters, and joint undergraduate/graduate social work programs to develop curriculum and organizational changes to ensure that gerontology pervades all social work students’ learning experiences.


This article will present how the College of Mount St. Joseph developed and put into practice a series of mandated service-learning assignments for our BSW students. It will discuss the activities purposely chosen for service with cognitively impaired older adults. Finally, it will discuss our outcomes thus far with these activities and examine the implications for social work practice.


Service-Learning: A Tool

John Dewey (1938) promoted the interaction of skills and knowledge with experience as the key to learning. Yet service-learning goes beyond learning by doing. Service-learning allows students to volunteer in the community in a project connected with the academic curriculum. Intergenerational service-learning goes one step further, by striving to connect the different generations in a productive, helpful interaction within a community setting (Larkin & Newman, 1997). Service-learning emphasizes both learning and service to meet real needs in the community. Thus, its intent is to have mutually beneficial outcomes for both the provider and the recipient of the service. Service-learning also strives to ensure that both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring receive equal attention (Furco, 1996). Studies show that students reflect upon both classroom and service experiences in order to apply and integrate knowledge and real-life experiences in service-learning (Bennett and Green, 2001; Bringle and Hatcher, 1996; Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, and Kerrigan, 1996; Fredericksen, 2000; Furco, 1996; Hanks and Icenogle, 2001; Marullo and Edwards, 2000). As exposure to older adults through work and volunteer experiences has been cited as influencing the decision to pursue graduate study, and thus future careers, in social work with older adults (Lawrence et al., 2002), service-learning appeared to be an appropriate mechanism to help students learn about aging and the work in this field.  Activities could be structured to put class content into meaningful practice that would benefit both the student and the recipient of the service.


Research Design:  The Service-Learning Project

In the Adult Development and Aging course, a required psychology course for social work majors, we mandated a thirty-hour intergenerational service-learning component in which students serve and work with memory-impaired older adults. We required the service-learning element because we were concerned that those students who were not interested in aging, or who had negative views about work with aging, would not participate voluntarily.  Based on a written questionnaire we did prior to this project’s implementation, we knew that nearly 30% of the responding BSW students indicated negative views towards working with older adults.


The Corporation for National and Community Service, Learn & Serve Higher Education, funded this particular project through a grant to The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education in partnership with Generations Together/University of Pittsburgh. For this project, students could choose one of three sites: an adult daycare center, a continuing care retirement community, or a nursing home for retired nuns.  One of the main reasons these three sites were selected was because older adults at each location have varying levels of cognitive and physical abilities.


The expected outcomes in this project are to meet the needs of the sites, including stimulation for memory-impaired participants, and, more important, to make a connection for these older adults between their past and present lives. For students, though, the expected outcomes encompass actually seeing memory strengths in cognitively impaired older adults, recognizing and appreciating the diversity of memory gains and losses, and being exposed to the spiritual learning through memory activities of retired nuns.


Moreover, the relationships among the students and the facility participants in all three settings promote intergenerational understanding, help combat isolation, and encourage social interaction for the residents.  Perhaps more importantly, a goal is that the older persons at these three organizations and the college students will find out interesting things about one another or a period of history and will experience an appreciation of one another’s personal perspectives through reflection on various historical events.


At the adult daycare center, students worked with both first-grade students and cognitively impaired older adults, helping them review or relearn nursery rhymes in a memory-stimulation project for the adults and a memory-development activity for the children. The culmination was a theatrical production of Mother Goose telling nursery rhymes with both the first graders and the adult day care participants in attendance. The service-learning students dressed as nursery rhyme characters and participated in the production.


At the other two sites, students conducted reminiscence groups with residents of varying cognitive and/or physical abilities, as well as assisted individuals in making “memory boxes”—symbols of who that older adult had been throughout his or her life. Students also helped the retired nuns complete oral histories. The students audiotaped these and had them packaged as a legacy for the nuns to share with family, friends, and the retirement facility. We held guided reflections in class to synthesize what occurred at all three sites, as well as to relate course content and theory with these real-life experiences.


Implications for Social Work Education

Social work with older adults involves issues that everyone must one day encounter, whether they want to or not. Although social workers may not personally be affected by some social problems (e.g., substance abuse, domestic violence, etc.), none can escape “the experience of aging and death for themselves and their families” (McInnis-Dittrich, 2002, p. 17). A major goal of our service-learning implementation was to stimulate student interest in aging by providing classroom work with service to others—in this case, older adults and the agencies that serve them.


We realized that we were working with students who had potentially limited exposure to older adults in nursing care facilities, and that placing them with memory-impaired older adults could be a risk. An unappealing environment could negatively impact students’ views of work with older adults and discourage interest in this population. The three sites we use for the service-learning activity were selected to provide multi-dimensional opportunities for students; that is, older adults in these three locations have varying levels of cognitive and physical abilities. These sites also offer multi-generational opportunities, with participation from students at a local elementary school. In addition, they provide service-learning opportunities on weekends, evening, and daytime, thus meeting the needs of a diverse student population, and likewise meeting the needs of residents and staff. Students choose the site they prefer and/or the one that best meets their schedule. Careful and well-planned service activities, thorough orientation to the sites, and excellent communication among instructors, students, and facility staff appear to have prevented negative outcomes in this project. The agencies have requested we return each year, the older participants have wanted the projects to continue, and student comments on course evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive, such as these indicated below:

I really don’t know my grandparents. They live so far away. This service-learning project has given me the opportunity to sit down and talk with older people. Older people have a lot to share, even if their memory is not always tops. They’re fun!


Even though my career goal is to work with children, this exercise has helped me. I’ve learned a lot about older adults through this class. Sometimes the course material just ‘clicked’ when I was actually in the retirement home.


Thirty-six percent of the students stayed at the agencies longer than the required thirty hours. Similarly, while 41% of the students agreed with the statement “I feel unprepared to work with older adults” before the course and intergenerational service-learning assignment, 100% of the students either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement after completing the course and the service-learning experience. Comments on course evaluations also indicate that the service-learning exercises have been well received by students, both in stimulating interest and in learning more about aging.

I liked that we linked the course to an agency – I liked doing the service at [the retirement facility].


I was afraid to go to a nursing home. My parents and grandparents are healthy. Seeing people in wheelchairs and slumped over was scary. I had to be made to do this for a class—I would never have gone there for any other reason. Being in a group helped tremendously—I really don’t know if I would have gone by myself. I have learned so much by going there. I’ve made friends with residents. I’ve even signed up to be a volunteer now at the nursing home!


The group project [service-learning at an adult day care center] was fun and challenging.


Developing these real-life learning opportunities requires substantial commitment on the part of social workers in the field.  They must be willing to work with students, faculty, and clients to develop and implement these service-learning assignments.  Thus, faculty has to work proactively with community social workers to develop these projects.  Networking and community involvement on the part of the faculty has helped us offer a mixture of age-enriched service-learning experiences to our students.  We believe with carefully planned and coordinated service-learning assignments, the outcome can be a win-win situation for all parties.



Bennett, G., & Green, F. P. (2001). Promoting service learning via online instruction. College Student Journal, 35, 491-497.

Berenbaum, R. (2000). Motivating students in the helping professions to work with the aged. Educational Gerontology, 26 (1), 83-96.

Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 67, 221-239.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.

Dorfman, L. T., Murty, S., Ingram, J., & Evans, R. (2002). Incorporating intergenerational service-learning into an introductory gerontology course. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 39 (1/2), 219-240.

Driscoll, A., Holland, B., Gelmon, S., & Kerrigan, S. (1996). As assessment model for service-learning: Comprehensive case studies of impact on faculty, students, community, and institution. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 3, 66-71.

Fredericksen, P. J. (2000). Does service learning make a difference in student performance? Journal of Experiential Education, 23, 64-74.

Furco, A. (1996). Service-learning: A balanced approach to experiential education. In J. Raybuck (Ed.), Expanding boundaries: Serving and learning (pp. 49-53). Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service.

Hanks, R. S. & Icenogle, M. (2001). Preparing for an age-diverse workforce: Intergenerational service-learning in social gerontology and business curricula. Educational Gerontology, 27, 49-70.

Kane, M. N. (1999). Factors affecting social work student’s willingness to work with elders with Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Social Work Education, 35 (1), 71-85.

Larkin, E., & Newman, S. (1997). Intergenerational studies: A multi-disciplinary field.  Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28, 5-16.

Lawrence, A. R., Jarman-Rohde, L., Dunkle, R., Campbell, R., Bakalar, H., & Li, L. (2002).  Student pioneers and educational innovations: Attracting students to gerontology.  Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 39 (1/2), 91-110

Marullo, S. & Edwards, B. (2000). Editors’ introduction: Service-learning pedagogy as universities’ response to troubled times. American Behavioral Scientist, 43, 746-755.

McInnis-Dittrich, K. (2002). Social work with elders: A biopsychosocial approach to assessment and intervention. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

National Institute on Aging (1987). Personnel for health needs of the elderly through the year 2020. Bethesda, MD: Department of Health & Human Services, Public Health Service.

Paton, R. N., Sar, B. K., Barber, G. R., & Holland, B. E. (2001). Working with older persons: Student views and experiences. Educational Gerontology, 27 (2), 169-183.

Piner, P. (1997). Learning by sharing: An intergenerational college course. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28, 93-102.

Scharlach, A., Damron-Rodriquez, J., Robinson, B., & Feldman, R. (2000). Educating social workers for an aging society: A vision for the 21st century. Journal of Social Work Education, 36(3), 521-538.