Field Work in Gerontology
Athletics have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I grow
older I find them becoming more important to me and the people surrounding my
everyday life. I have been interviewed a couple times throughout my “athletic career”
and I remember how much that meant to me. It was a way for me to reflect on my
accomplishments as an athlete, and made me feel like an important role model for
others. Choosing to interview two elderly athletes was an easy decision for me. I felt the
process would be very appropriate since I could relate and understand their stories as
they told them to me. Also, I was interested in learning how athletics have changed over
time in terms of the rules, uniforms, coaching, etc. I chose this topic for a fun experience
and learning opportunity. The two residents that I chose to interview were John
Skawski, and Sue Cotton. John attends Longview’s Adult Day Program, and Sue is a
permanent resident at Longview.
Eighty three year old John Skawski has been playing sports since he can remember.
He first started at a young school age when he would play baseball with his brothers and
neighborhood kids. When high school came around he became more involved with
different sports. He played football, basketball, and baseball his freshmen through
senior year, and also added track and field to the mix his senior year. John enjoyed
being busy, and the sports that he played seemed to come easy for him. When I asked
John which sport(s) were his favorite he responded, “Whatever season it was I enjoyed
that sport the most; if it was fall I liked football, spring baseball, and winter basketball.” I
really pushed this question on John because I knew there had to be one sport he
favored over the other. I could relate to him when he said he enjoyed the sport the
most that he was playing at that time, however I always favored one sport over the
other. John really seemed to enjoy every sport equally the same, which really surprised
I asked John who inspired him to play sports, or who he looked up to but no one in
particular seemed to inspire him. After hearing his response I thought that it was odd
that no one inspired him. After thinking about what I would say if someone asked me
this question and I would have responded the same way he did. John explained that the
main reasons why he got into sports were because of his brothers and parents. “It’s just
what I did.”
I asked Jon how often he practiced; he looked at me like I was kind of crazy and said,
“Everyday! And if I wasn’t practicing I was playing with the neighborhood kids.” Sundays
were usually a day off.
I wasn’t surprised when I asked what one of his most memorable sports moments
were and he responded by saying that he lived in the moment of each game, and
stressed again that he loved each sport at the time he was playing. I feel John was really
unique athlete to not have picked a favorite sport or memorable moment. To be able to
live in each moment and truly love the sport at the time he was playing it is really
difficult to do when being a multi-sport athlete. I asked John about his coaches and he
said that he loved all his coaches; they all were really good and inspiring to him. After
John graduate from Cornell in 1948 he coached football and baseball. John seemed to
enjoy coaching; he explained that it was a way to teach kids what he was taught over
the years; it was a way to still be involved with the sports he enjoyed throughout every
season. I told John I coached a few teams here and there but nothing too serious. We
agreed that it gave you a totally different perspective on the sport and also taught you a
Trophies and plaques were always a great way to remember different achievements’
you have made throughout your sports career. I asked John if he remembered any
specific awards that he received. John remembers receiving medals and trophies for
each team sport but any specific awards; I bet if he was shown his numerous trophies it
would remind him of his accomplishments. He also said he has many sweaters and caps
to remind him of the different teams he contributed to.
After graduating college John continued to play basketball in older adult leagues.
Today John enjoys to golf whenever he can to stay busy. “It’s a relaxing way to spend
time with your friends and be active.” He also goes to the gym three times a week and
enjoys staying active with his friends and family. I asked John what he would choose to
play today if he was able to, and wasn’t surprised when he said, ‘I would play football in
the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring, and I love them all.”
After the interview John asked me what paper he could find my write up in so he
could show his family. I explained to John that the purpose of the interview was for a
final paper in a class and that it was not going to be in a paper. I thought it was typical
for a former athlete like John to think that his interview was going to be in the paper
and that it reflected the pride and importance he felt for his past accomplishments.
My interview with John went smoothly. I could tell by the enthusiastic way he told
me about the sports he played and the awards he won that his athletic career was very
important to him. He was so proud of his accomplishments and enjoyed telling me every
last detail that he could remember about his past.
Sue Cottons first experience with sports was when she was only seven years old.
Her family lived across from a golf course in Canandaigua, NY so her father would take
her golfing a lot; Sue has been playing ever season since. At the time not many girls
played golf so she often played with boys, and started playing in competitive
tournaments when she was 16.
Later on, at an all girl’s high school in Rochester she ice skated recreationally and
played on the girl’s field hockey team. Sue said she always remembered staying busy
and as soon as it got warm she would start to golf again. Sue also would swim in the lake
just for fun; she recalled a story to me about how her friend agreed to teach her how to
ride a bike if Sue would teach her how to swim. She said she gave up on trying to teach
her friend after the first five minutes. “I didn’t understand why it was so hard for her to
get it, it was so easy for me and I got frustrated; besides I could probably teach myself
how to ride a bike.” I could tell that Sue was extremely athletic and things like swimming
and riding a bike came really easy to her which also explained why she was so active
throughout her life.
As she grew older she played golf at the collegiate level at Hood College for 3 years.
While at hood she also horse back rode, for fun, with many of her friends. The college
would lend them the horses and they would ride all day long.
When asked which her favorite was, she replied, “Golf, because it’s something you
can do as long as you can walk.” Sue also really enjoyed Gold because she had grown up
with it and had gotten very good at it as the years went by. Sues dad also really made
her enjoy golf because he took her to the golf course all the time. Her dad was also
someone Sue mentioned that inspired her. A professional golfer during that time named
Bobbie Jones also influenced Sue to golf. Sue said she enjoyed watching him on
Sue would practice golf almost everyday when the season came around. Most of the
other activities she was involved in were on her own free time. One of her most
memorable sports moment was winning a championship golf tournament, which she did
a few times. She also got trophies for racquet ball and received team awards on a league
golf team. It was interesting story how Sue got involved in racquet ball. 15 years ago her
friend that she met at Longview asked her if she would like to play racket ball and Sue
told her that she had never played before, so her friend taught her how to play and she
got really good at it: “better than her,” Sue told me.
When I asked Sue about her coaches she seemed to like them. One of her coaches
became a professional golfer. During lessons he would work on different clubs, and
putting styles with her. She usually wore shorts and a t-shirt when golfing. I feel today
the golfers outfit is a lot more involved; usually a polo shirt, with a skirt or nice shorts. I
feel that they usually always have to match and be highly advertised towards Nike. Sue
also explained to me how golf clubs have changed tremendously over the years. Golf
clubs use to be wooden, and T’s were made out of sand piles. Sue said she has owned 5-
6 different sets of golf clubs throughout her whole life. She also noted that they have
gotten a lot more expensive. I thought it was really interesting hearing how someone
has lived throughout dramatic changes in a sport.
Today Sue still golf’s every season; usually at the golf course at Cornell with friends.
She cross country skis during the winter which she had been doing for 20 years before
moving to Longview. Sue says she enjoys staying busy because it keeps her outdoors
and involved with her friends. Sue and I both agreed that we don’t like sitting around
because we are so use to being active. Sue says that because she has been busy her
whole life being active throughout her old age has been very easy and beneficial. Sue
also does yoga everyday; she learned at Longview and started doing it on her own. She
even went to a couple of yoga camps. Sue also does Tai-chi at Longview twice a week.
After my interview with Sue I asked her one last question. I asked her if she had a quote
or certain philosophy that she lives by that has been keeping her so active during her
aging years; she replied, “Use it, or lose it!
I thought my interview with Sue went really well. I thought it was interesting that I
could relate to her in many ways even though there is a 60 year age different between
us. Sue enjoyed many activities and has been busy her whole life which has made it
easier to carry out as she ages. Seeing how busy Sue is today and comparing her history
to mine life right now assures me that I will be able to stay busy in my aging future.
One of my main reasons for choosing to interview Sue and John was because I have
a great interest in promoting health, as well as observing and understanding the elderly
populations view on it. I believe it is exceedingly important for an elder to stay active
and healthy as they age, but also can understand why it can be difficult for an individual
to be as active as they use to. I was also interested in learning about their active pasts
and how they compare or contrasts to my experiences today. As I was doing some
research on comparing athletics and active elders from the past to today I came across a
really interesting article in the Washington Post titled, “Marathon Men;” the tagline
read, Research continues to demonstrate the benefits of exercise, no matter your age.
But the Tatum brothers, who for nearly 90 years have swum, skied, bowled, played
football and worked in the yard, have never needed convincing. Stories and information
from this articled tied in perfectly with John and Sues interviews. The article interviews
and describes the active lives of two brothers, Brad (87) and John (89) Tatum. Both
brothers along with the rest of their family have been busy and active throughout their
whole lives. As young boys they skated and ran on small track teams. In high school both
were competitive swimmers more so against each other than on a team. John
continually played sports throughout his young adulthood, such as baseball, softball,
and football and continued swimming again after retiring in the 1970’s. Soon after, the
brothers started swimming competitively together with the Water Wizards, the official
D.C. 50 and over swim club. John went to his first National Senior Games in 2003 where
he won fourth place in the 50-yard freestyle and sixth in the 100. Brad first decided to
compete in 2007 where he won five medals at the senior games. Brad also broke the
national record for the 50-yard free style in the 84-89 categories. Brad also played with
the Navy Yard softball team until her retired at age 55, and his brother took up skiing
when he turned 70. Today the two brothers are busy training for the up coming senior
games, and have managed to stay fairly healthy along the way. John had hip
replacement surgery back in 1999 and takes pills for his hypertension. Currently Brad is
not taking any medications and has never been seriously ill.
“All during my adult years, I played something, somewhere; it was the thirst for
competition really. It wasn’t like it is now where people do things for fitness. I didn’t
know the help it would do for my body, I just played ball.” John Tatum.
The Tatum brother’s remarkable strength and agility along with being able to
competitively compete as 90 year old athletes has been a topic of research in the past.
With some exceptions, the human body has its maximum potential in the 20’s. “The
amount of oxygen the lungs can provide the body is at its peak,” says Gayle Appel Doll a
gerontology professor and director of Kansas State University’s Center on Aging. “The
hearts ability to pump blood to the body is at its highest level and muscle mass is at its
greatest resulting in the body’s highest strength levels. As muscle mass decreases the
body can not burn as many calories which can sometimes result in weight gain; this
increases one risk of developing cardio-respiratory diseases. A study done in 1990 by the
Journal of the American Medical Association featured ten men at the average age of 90
suffering from the kind of muscle weakness that’s results in decreases mobility,
fractures, and falls. Each of the men were put on a strength training plan for eight
weeks. The studies result showed an astounding 174% overall increase in strength in
their legs, and an average of a 48% increase in their walking speed and balance. Two of
the men in the study who walked with canes now walk without them. This study proved
that elderly muscles are just as responsive to the benefits of weight lifting as young
muscles. Another study that was done in Britain researched 2,400 sets of twins and was
published in the Archives of American Medicine. The purpose of the study was to
examine telomeres; telomeres are cell structures that carry genes and cap the ends of
chromosomes and as cells divide the telomeres get shorter and shorter until they can
not divide anymore. The length of individual’s telomeres is a mark of their age. After the
study was done researches found that the more physically active twin had longer
telomeres, resulting in cells that looked up to six years younger than the more sedentary
twin; the cells of the more active twin appeared to look up to a decade younger. This
study proved that being physically active can protect the body against the aging process.
A question that came to my mind after reading these studies was, if it is proven that
physical activity can benefit and slow the aging process why don’t we hear about or see
more people like Sue, John or the Tatum brothers? The answer probably lies
somewhere in the minds of the elders themselves, the stereotypes that fall on the aging
population are probably a difficult barrier to overcome. Not being an individual who
studies aging or the elderly population may view elders as lazy, mean, grumpy, and
incontinent and these views are also widely publicized throughout commercials,
television shows, and movies. Younger populations are not the only people seeing these
ideas; the elderly population is as well. Once they start to see images of “how they
should be in old age,” they then start to act the way society is telling them to.
It may be difficult for some elders to be as physically active as others, however there
are many different ways one can be physically active and it will still benefit their health.
Gabrielle Redford who writes a column for AARP magazine and has followed the Senior
Olympics movement for many years makes this point by saying, “There is an enhanced
quality of life that comes with being active and engaged, you are never too old to begin
As I was interviewing John and Sue I could relate to them in many different ways.
The passion and excitement they had when telling me their unique stories really hit
home with me because I know that if or when I told stories about my past athletic
experiences I would feel the same way. It’s exciting to tell stories about your past
especially if it is something you really cherish and are proud of.
Comparing experiences and thoughts about sports back then in the 1940’s and today
there are a few differences I picked up on when interviewing both John and Sue.
Similarly to John, I got into athletics at a young age because my brother had. I heavily
competed in sports throughout my high school career, not as much in college like John
and Sue did. It really surprised me when Sue told me that her favorite sport was golf,
like she explained not a lot of women played golf back then and still not many do today.
Sports also seemed to be a special bond between Sue and her father which has been the
same case for me. My dad is always looking to help me practice and really enjoyed the
social aspects of my athletic events. It was fun to be able to relate stories back to both
John and Sue; they seemed to enjoy my stories just as much as I enjoyed theirs.
The interviews I conducted with both John and Sue were both very informational
and interesting. I enjoyed hearing their stories and learning about the life of an athlete
in a different time period. One thing that I wished I did differently was talk to them
about the benefits of being an active elder. I wish I had the research information before
I had done the interviews in order to share it with them and see if they had any idea
about what being active was doing for their body and the aging process. I have always
known that being active throughout your life had many positive benefits to your body
but I did not know in what ways exactly. If more elders knew the benefits of being
physically active throughout their entire life, rather than just quitting when they feel
they are too old, then a higher percentage of the elderly population would want to be
more active; not just to keep themselves busy and have fun, but because it is good for
their body and overall health. There needs to be more health promotion towards the
elderly population about these benefits, and the stereotypes of aging need to be
eliminated from the minds of both the young and old generations.