For the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school classrooms that participate in Generation Xchange (GenX), the middle-age and older adults who spend at least 10 hours a week providing academic assistance and support to struggling students are a welcome addition, to say the least. But for Dr. Teresa Seeman, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, who established GenX in 2014 after collaborating with Johns Hopkins University colleagues on a similar program in Baltimore, there is another side to the equation.
“We were interested in building new socially important roles for middle-age and older adults, given that this population is growing so rapidly,” Dr. Seeman explains. “With so many schools losing resources and looking for extra help, the idea was that these volunteers could contribute in a way that’s not only fulfilling, but also ends up being health-promoting for them.”
GenX trains adults ages 50 and older to work with teachers in kindergarten-through-third-grade classrooms on improving students’ skills in reading and math, as well as addressing behavioral issues. The middle-age and older adults, the vast majority of them women, commit to working in the same classroom throughout the academic year. The program currently has 45 volunteers assigned to four schools located in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.
In developing GenX, Dr. Seeman and her colleagues foresaw wide-ranging health benefits — social, psychological, cognitive and physical. “These middle-age and older adults are walking around, socially engaged with the kids and teachers, and involved in a meaningful activity that is cognitively stimulating,” Dr. Seeman notes. A study of the health impact on GenX volunteers produced the hoped-for results. By the end of the academic year, participants showed significant improvements in blood pressure and walking speed while losing an average of five pounds. Dr. Seeman’s team found reductions in inflammation — associated with risk for heart disease, cognitive decline and early mortality, among others — along with improvements in immune function. The volunteers also reported making significant numbers of new friends.
Dr. Seeman’s group is now studying the program’s impact on students’ academic performance and behavior; ultimately, she hopes this will lead to its expansion to other elementary schools in the district.