Seventeen University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students from a variety of academic backgrounds spent the past semester delving past the euphemisms to explore a social issue that likely will directly or indirectly impact all of them at some point in their lives.
The spring 2010 senior honors seminar, titled “Understanding Dementia,” presented students with the opportunity to look at the topic of memory loss from many perspectives, examining how dementia is treated in books and the mainstream media, how it is regarded in healthcare professions and the scientific community, and how the disease affects those living with it and their loved ones.
“I’ve been doing research on people living with dementia for a long time,” said UW Oshkosh psychology professor Susan McFadden. “The senior seminar has given me a marvelous opportunity to bring so many perspectives together: biology, psychology, history of the diagnosis, how fiction writers have dealt with the problem of forgetting and ways to make better lives for people living with forgetfulness.”
McFadden’s passion for finding ways people might live well with what aging people fear most — Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia — prompted her to suggest the topic for the senior honors seminar course, which is the capstone requirement for students in the University Honor Program who do not elect to write a thesis.
“When I first came to UW Oshkosh, I had the dream of graduating with honors,” said Steven Czechowicz, a computer science major from Wausau who didn’t know what to expect from the course or how it would relate to his major.
Throughout the semester, however, Czechowicz became interested in the needs of the individuals suffering from dementia.
“We’ve talked a lot in class about how the research is all about the biological, not necessarily the care each person needs and the fact that they are still individuals,” he said. “I’m sure in my lifetime I’ll come in contact with people who have Alzheimer’s, and I really hope that I can help make their lives better.”
Psychology major Kim Han signed up for the course because her independent study project from the fall focused on Huntington’s disease, which is associated with symptoms of dementia.
“I only had a common knowledge of dementia and had never looked into it in depth,” said Han, of Appleton, who plans to pursue a career in either genetic counseling or psychology. “I’ve learned a lot about the disease’s progress and also the stigma and my own feelings toward it.”
Projects with a purpose
Whereas many psychology courses culminate with a robust writing assignment, McFadden said the heaviest assignment in the senior honors seminar is a project that is unique to each student’s interests.
“I have a psychology major who is making a film, a marketing student who is creating a website for college students to learn about dementia (http://studentguide2dementia.weebly.com), and a finance student who is putting together a guide for financial planning for families,” McFadden said. “These are just three examples. I’m so excited because the projects they’re working on are taking them so much further along in their studies.”
For his final project, Czechowicz is building a computer program to be used by activities directors at retirement homes.
“There are so many things people with dementia can do, so it’s important they have the right activities to help their minds,” he said. “My program will function as a calendar that makes sure the people are getting into the right activities.”
Other projects include a psychology major’s research on pet therapy, an English major’s analysis of several foreign films featuring people with memory loss, a nursing major’s handbook for families and friends of people with dementia, and a criminal justice major’s examination of the issue of dementia in prisons.
When Anne Basting, a former UW Oshkosh English professor and author of “Forget Memory,” spoke to the students and members of the community on March 31, she said reading the list of projects is a culmination of a dream of hers.
“The projects all of you are doing for your seminar are at the core of trying to discover the relationship between memory and identity. It’s the core of what we’re about as human beings and community,” said Basting, the director of the Center on Age and Community at UW-Milwaukee.
Lessons for life
While McFadden was able to impart a lot of information on a topic close to her heart, she also found the course to be rewarding as a chance to learn from students whose knowledge falls outside of her own expertise.
“For me it’s just tremendously exciting to have students from all four colleges in this course, where we are all living the ideals of the liberal arts by looking at an important issue from all of these different perspectives,” she said.
McFadden hopes the course has equipped students with knowledge about memory loss and aging people that they can make use of in the future.
“It’s going to be a social issue that all students are going to have to deal with at some point,” she said.
With 78 million baby boomers beginning to enter their golden years, both McFadden and Basting are hopeful that with more education on dementia, both attitudes about people who have dementia and prognoses for their lives might improve.
For more information about the University Honors Program, visit www.uwosh.edu/honors.