“The youth is the hope of our future,” wrote the Filipino essayist Jose Rizal. This is no less true in the aging field, where today’s youth will become tomorrow’s researchers and gerontologists. A youth movement that started in California aims to influence that future by promoting awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and elder issues among high school and college students, as well as encouraging young people to go into AD research. Their organization, Universal Gerontology and Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness (UGADA, pronounced U-Gotta), also hosts an annual aging conference, volunteers at senior centers, and raises funds for the Alzheimer’s Association. Next on their agenda is to expand their organization across the U.S.
Founding member Shadee Giurgius told ARF, “We want to be a nationwide, virtual youth movement that will connect all the little clubs on the different campuses across the U.S. so that they have some form of communication.” His dream is to see an aging-related group at every college, Giurgius said, filling up the UGADA map.
Giurgius and fellow student Yeva Delband started UGADA in 2005 while they were undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles. Giurgius credits his father, a geriatric psychiatrist, with giving him a passion for helping the elderly. Noticing there were no UCLA student organizations focused on aging or AD, Giurgius and Delband formed UGADA with support from campus organizations such as the School of Public Affairs and the Longevity Center, which conducts aging research, runs programs for seniors, and does community outreach. UGADA has several faculty advisors, including Gary Small, Fernando Torres-Gil, Karen Miller, and Isaac Yang at UCLA, and Jeffrey Cummings at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, Nevada. UGADA also gets input from Melissa Goldman at the California Southland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Their initial goal, Giurgius told ARF, was to make young people more aware of the issues facing the elderly, in particular, the AD epidemic that is approaching as the Baby Boomer population ages. “We are all going to know someone with AD,” co-founder Shweta Balakrishnan tells young people. “It affects everyone.” The organization maintains Facebook and Twitter pages. The UCLA Chapter now includes about 30-50 people, Balakrishnan told ARF, and the movement has recruited chapters around California, in Mississippi, and in New York. Balakrishnan, who did AD-related research in Gal Bitan’s lab at UCLA, said UGADA hopes to add a chapter in every state over the next two years.
“We know there are organizations already out there working toward this cause,” Balakrishnan said. “We want to pull them all together and make one big force.” UGADA also plans to expand internationally, she added.
One of the movement’s goals is to get more young people interested in studying gerontology and doing Alzheimer’s research, and to this end, members often speak to high school classes. “Right now, there is a huge lack of gerontologists and doctors specializing in the elderly. So by facilitating the interest early on, we hope more people will become professionals in this field,” Balakrishnan told ARF. UGADA also helps connect undergraduates interested in aging research with appropriate labs, and has matched several dozen students over the years, Balakrishnan said.
Since 2006, UGADA has annually hosted the largest student-run aging and Alzheimer's conference in the country. Held in Los Angeles and drawing up to 500 attendees, the conference includes talks from researchers, aging experts, and AD advocates, as well as student poster sessions. Invited guests have ranged from Bill Nye the Science Guy to people coping with dementia and those who care for them. The next conference is planned for this fall. Giurgius notes, however, that the conference has struggled for funding in the current financial climate.
Fundraising for AD research is another priority for the group. They hosted a musical rocking chair marathon, Rock Out 4 Alzheimer’s, to raise money for research, and they plan similar events. Members also help out at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
One of the most meaningful activities for many members, Balakrishnan said, is their work at senior centers. Once a week she takes volunteers to Optimistic People in a Caring Atmosphere (OPICA), a daycare center for seniors with dementia in Los Angeles. The students engage in activities such as chair volleyball, art, and singing with seniors, as well as simply sitting down and talking. “I think it’s refreshing for people with dementia to talk to someone who is interested in their past,” Balakrishnan said. “You can tell it stimulates their memories.” Getting to know these seniors has changed his life, Giurgius said. He teaches UGADA members to talk to people with dementia as equals, and never to use baby talk. In a speech to graduating high school students, he told them, “Older people are not a different species. They are younger people from the past. When you talk to them, look into their eyes, and see the youth in them. See the you in them.”—Madolyn Bowman Rogers.
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