The International Electronic Journal of Health Education

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IEJHE, Vol. 1(3), 166-168, July 1, 1998, Copyright 1998

Insight and Intelligence Has Many Faces

Jessica Frank, BA1
1 University of Maryland

Corresponding author: Jessica Frank, University of Maryland, JESSF@WAM.UMD.EDU. Received May 20, 1998; revised June 6, 1998.

Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

My learning experience in working with a developmentally challenged, Latino older adult member in the Adult Health & Development Program at the University of Maryland is described. In this hands on program, I learned of how people cope in oppressive political regimes, how to apply gerontological health theory, and the destructiveness of a narrow view of intelligence.

Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

The Adult Health Development Program is a place where people grow in all aspects of life. This program is successful because of its affect on the members and staffers who attend every Saturday. For some members, the AHDP program is an escape from an unpleasant everyday life and for some it is a chance to bond with a new friend. For whatever the reason is, it is amazing that a few hours every weekend can put a smile across many faces. The best part of the program is that the we, the staffers(1), learn that we are making a difference in someone's life, and that our relationship with our members impacts upon our lives as well.

The AHDP program has been an important course in my college career as a gerontology minor. I have learned many theories about the aging and working with the aging but this is the first course where they could be applied. I knew that I wanted to work with senior citizens in my future career but after working with my member, I know now that there is a wide range of people in the Latino senior citizen category(2) and knowing Spanish will be very helpful in working with the elderly.

My Member, Bill Smith
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

When I registered for the AHDP, I did not have any expectations or even a goal. I'm in my last semester before I graduate this May [1998] and that was pretty much what was on my mind. I did not think I would begin any long-term friendships knowing that I would be moving away in May. I certainly did not want to begin any long-term friendships either.

Meeting Bill Smith at the party for the members, I would never have guessed I would become close to him. I knew that whomever I was matched with I would be happy. However, the thought of working with a person who was developmentally challenged was intimidating. Aren't we all apprehensive over any unfamiliar situation? Today, I would not trade my experience with Bill for anything.

One initial barrier to our relationship was difficulty understanding him. Bill has a speech impediment. Fortunately I could speak to him in Spanish. It took a lot of patience and listening, and soon I became accustomed to his pattern of communication.

Lessons Learned
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

People pass Bill in the hallway and don't talk to him for too long because they can't understand him or don't understand Spanish. Little do they know Bill is a walking history book full of first hand knowledge of important historical events.

Our generation tends to make stereotypical judgments of our grandparents generation: They talk too much, they're uninteresting, or they're slow. Our grandparents have so much to teach us -- probably more, in many ways, than we would learn from attending the best university. Our grandparents represent our history, and to learn about them and the world they used to live in, is to learn about ourselves and how we got where we are today.

We often criticize our grandparents for not being familiar with today's trends and ways but there are reasons to hold onto the past. They grew up in a completely different time, and world with, perhaps, different mores including ethics, morals, rituals, and cultural expectations that governed all aspects of social life such as courtship, parenting, and work. Meanwhile the world is changing. Times are different. I am different than my grandparents. Still, my behavior and outlook on life is very much influenced by my grandparents. Their sense of ethics and morals is their legacy to me.

This course, the AHDP, and my involvement with Bill have taught me the value of being open minded. Again, we have to remember that people grow up in different cultures, and consequently may have different expectations, beliefs and attitudes than our own. Understanding and being sensitive to these factors contributes to empathy. We must put ourselves in another persons shoes in order to understand where they are coming from.

Bill's Heritage
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

As I was getting to know Bill, I came to understand how Bill's life in Cuba affected him in the present, that is, today. Bill Smith grew up under the Communist regime in Cuba. Although Communism positively affected some people in Cuba, it did not apply to Bill and his family. He has experienced, and seen the effects on others of a poor economy, poverty, and the denial of basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. I found, through Bill, that Cubans are proud people torn between their love of their mother country and the politics running it. Even though many Cubans love their country, many would emigrate because the future does not hold much promise for present and future generations. For the Smiths, leaving was essential to survival.

Bill was generally a happy person. He was more than happy to express his ideas to anyone who gave him the chance. Even a "hello" from a passing staffer or member was opportunity for Bill to tell him or her what is on his mind and what is important in life. Some people found this a bit odd. I asked myself, "Why is Bill so expressive about his religious thoughts and morals?" Bill's willingness to express himself probably has to do with his outgoing personality.

There may be another factor. In Cuba, the Communist regime might have helped the country in some ways but inhibited free speech certainly in the area of formal religious beliefs. As with many Latin Americans, religion is a part of the everyday life and gives meaning to life. Now that Bill lives in a country where he is able to express his thoughts and religious views, I think he uses every opportunity to do so. In the two and a half hours I spent with Bill on Saturdays he prayed for everybody. Because Bill and his family were repressed for so long in Cuba, I think this factor and his outgoing personality are why Bill is so expressive today.

In the AHDP we learn that our members benefit from empathy more so than sympathy [that is, application of Symbolic Interaction Theory]. It is not easy to understand Bill's past history, it takes a lot of patience and listening. Bill is developmentally challenged but that does not hold him back from getting involved. I had to consider the complexity of Bill's past experiences, his present situation, and hopes for the future in working with him [emphasizing the perception of time as a factor influencing behavior]. For example, I have given some thought to what it would be like to be developmentally challenged while living under a Communist regime.

I know his family was deprived and oppressed. For example, he spoke frequently, to the point of obsession, about a woman who was covered in dirt and could not shower for years because there was neither water nor money. Eventually, I figured out this woman was Bill's mother. Bill is always talking about this image, which leads me to believe he may have been traumatized by this event. He describes this woman with no clothes (maybe she did not own any) and covered with dirt. The next thing he remembers is somebody coming to bathe her. Not only was he traumatized by the fact that there was no water, clothes, or money but I think seeing his mother naked was also shocking.

Work, hard work, is an important part of the Latino culture. This certainly applied to Bill, who is a quite talented artist. For him his painting and drawing are work, and a means to partially support himself and his family. Even when Bill and I did a painting project together he was doing it because he hoped that he could might be able to sell his artwork. He enjoys having work to do but at the same time he always complains that he has too much work. I don't think he would have it any other way.

Some Insights
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

I have learned more than I thought I ever would in working with Bill. I have always enjoyed hearing about my grandparents and my older generations life history. It is amazing to me how easy life is for many people living in the United States. Of course, everyone experience hardships in their lives, but when I think about what Bill and the Smith family have gone through in Cuba, it opens your eyes to what the important things in life really are.

People may judge Bill on first impressions because he may speak in Spanish or because he is always talking about something no one understands, but you have to take time out to understand the context from which Bill is speaking. Bill wants to teach people what is important but we don't give him the chance because he is labeled developmentally challenged, and has a speech impediment. With a little time and patience Bill can be a walking history book for everyone.

Implementing the ACAEM Paradigm
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

Bill loved to talk about Cuba and his job and if you gave him the opportunity, he would lecture all day long. On the basis of physical fitness testing, review of his Medical Form, past Individual History Forms, and talking with Bill, I assessed his health and well-being needs in reference to what the AHDP had to offer. His primary need was social, that is, opportunity to interact with others. A second need to be addressed was improved in areas of physical activity/fitness such as strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, and coordination. A third need was to simply have fun.

I created a time in the beginning of the morning where we could talk about anything of interest or how our week went. This enabled Bill to somewhat express himself, and ventilate. Evaluating the situation, I concluded that the short time set aside to chat in the morning was not adequate. He continued to lose concentration during the activities, so I modified the situation. I decided that the need for Bill to vent and tell his stories took priority over physical activities. So when he wished to talk in his intense fashion, we took a breather, and did. First things first. Eventually, participating in physical activity came easier and naturally.

One of the main activities Bill and I participated in was swimming and muscle strengthening in the water. Once in a while we would play water basketball. He would have trouble throwing the ball up to the hoop. Keeping the coaching model in mind, we moved closer to the basket. Bill still was having problems, so we switched to a lighter ball. Then he was able to shoot the ball into the basket with a little encouragement. We were overjoyed at his success! As predicted he became more involved in physical activities, and improved in some aspects of physical fitness. Since physical activities at the AHDP always involve a social component, he developed new friends. It was no surprise that he became happier. It is no wonder that Bill always wishes to return to the AHDP each semester.

My Group Leaders
Abstract Introduction My Member, Bill Smith Lessons Learned Bill's Heritage Some Insights Implementing Group Leaders

Working with my group and my group leaders has been a pleasure. Mike, Sammy, and Grace have given me so much guidance and support. For example, at first I didn't know how to act around Bill and what activities to do with him. They helped me out by giving me ideas and helping me feel more comfortable about the progress Bill I were making. They were very encouraging and positive people, and would better be described as group guides, not group leaders. They guided us with our ideas and our plans with our members. They also brought out the best in the other group members, my peers. Group meetings from 12:15 to 1:30 were not leader dominated. Many ideas and much encouragement came from other staffers.

In my experience with the AHDP program has been very positive. I will be able to use all the theories I have learned and the experiences I have had in the future and apply them to my career in health aspects of gerontology. For example, this summer I will be working at the National Council on Aging in the area of public policy or social work. In either position I am sure that my AHDP experience will have an effect.


1. "Staffer" is the term given to the students and volunteers working one on one with their older adult "member." During the spring semester there was about 70 staffers, 70 members, and 20 senior staff.

2. Members fall into four categories: Those residing in the Community; a sub-group of the Foreign-born, people with developmental disabilities, and VA Nursing Home residents nearly all of whom use wheelchairs.

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Copyright 1998 by IEJHE.