PITTSBURG, Kan. — Julia Robertson always thought her future career would involve working with children.
A class that meets every Friday morning at the Pittsburg Family YMCA has changed her thinking: now she’s planning to work with older adults.
“I feel like this is what I was put on this earth to do,” she said. “It feels like a calling.”
Robertson, a sophomore therapeutic recreation major from Springfield, Missouri, was referring to Therapeutic Interventions for Older Adults — a class started at Pittsburg State University by Laura Covert-Miller.
The title might sound clinical, but the class is anything but: picture school recess with frisbees and hula hoops and orange traffic cones and lots of clapping and cheering and high fives. Except in this case, it’s for individuals ages 50+.
Robertson declares it “the best class for students to take at Pitt State.”
“I’ve learned so much about what to expect when I get older, and how I’d like to be treated. We’re all trying to reach a goal together,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing and I look forward to it every week.”
Robertson said it helped transform her college experience from feeling “a bit like a fish out of water” the first few weeks.
“I’ve met so many fun people, and I feel like such a part of the community,” she said.
It’s one of several such experiences designed by Covert-Miller for students to interact with various segments of the community — like TR-iffic Field Day, an annual event put on by her therapeutic recreation students that give them skills and confidence working with individuals with disabilities.
Learn by doing
Covert-Miller's own background includes working with older adults at an Omaha, Nebraska, wellness center, in retirement communities, and as a personal trainer and group exercise leader for a physical therapy company.
“Learn by doing — that’s PSU’s motto, and definitely my motto,” she said in 2020 when she received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Education. “I want our students, once they graduate from our program, to have enough experience to put them at the top of the field. I want their potential employers to see they already have experience with various populations in the recreation process to put them above other applicants.”
The goal of the class at the YMCA, Covert-Miller said, is for students to have a better understanding of aging and how to improve therapeutic-based activities for older adults.
“This is to help students learn techniques, how to teach interventions in a manner everyone can understand and participate in,” she said. “And they have to develop the ability to change things on the fly.”
The class is also designed to break down the stereotypes of aging — to expand students’ mindset of what aging can look like.
“Some people think there’s only one way to age,” she said. “I want students to realize there is so much more than can happen once you turn 50 and beyond.
That, in a nutshell, describes Doris Grotheer and her brother, Jim Harris, who joined in the fun one Friday.
Grotheer, 71, is a retired school librarian, and Harris, 67, is a retired music teacher. Both are active and physically fit — Harris bikes each day when weather allows.
“I love that this class is like recess,” Grotheer said. “When I was in school, as a kid, I always looked forward to recess, and it’s the same way now. It makes me feel energized.”
George Parsons, 68, drives to Pittsburg from near Nashville, Missouri, each week for the class.
“It’s great to have old folks like me mixing with young folks like them,” said Parsons, who has overcome several health challenges in the past few years. “I really look forward to it. I’m trying to talk more older people into coming.”
Students like Brody Tickel, a senior from Cherokee majoring in psychology, and Hayley Ritter, a junior from DeSoto majoring in nursing, said they, too, look forward to it every week and love directing activities like Capture the Flag and Tic Tac Toe Bingo.
“Ultimately, I want to work with this population,” Tickel said. “This was fun and showed me I do like it. It opened my eyes to how to approach individuals at this age. Some are more fit than I am!”
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