The old and young have a lot to learn from each other. But in a society that is increasingly being driven by technology and away from real, personal human connections, it has become harder to find opportunities for generations to sit down and talk to each other as peers — fellow human beings with unique experiences and perspectives worth knowing about and learning from.
In an effort to bridge the generation gap while helping both the old and young enrich themselves with the experiences of others, a local adult day center for people with dementia and disabilities has teamed up with a private school to recruit young people to interact with their clients and engage in intergenerational storytelling — a universal, timeless human custom.
Timberline Adult Day Services is Summit County’s only adult day respite service that provides activity programming and support for persons with dementia or disabilities, as well as their caregivers. Timberline’s clients are people who need a little help to live full lives, but all have stories worth telling and are themselves worth knowing.
Timberline’s executive director Gini Patterson came up with the idea of working with a local school to bring in students to engage in conversation, activities and wisdom-sharing with her clients.
“Summit County doesn’t have any facilities like a nursing home or assisted living facility where young people can have the opportunity to interact in that way,” Patterson said. “The benefits are multifaceted, where teenagers are socializing and interacting with adults, and they gain a greater understanding and respect for each other. It’s a win-win where the older adults also have the ability to interact with young people in their everyday lives.”
Timberline’s clients include people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and Patterson believed it was also important for the students and community to realize their dignity and worth as people with unique experiences worth sharing.
“It is a reminder to all of us that no matter our age, that we do not judge someone by their cover,” Patterson said. “All of us have stories to share, including those who have intellectual or physical disabilities as many do have at Timberline.”
The Rotary Club of Summit County, of which Patterson is a member, and Peak School both became interested in the project, known as the Intergenerational Storytelling Project. Patterson met Peak teacher Karen Mitchell, who designed an extracurricular elective and chose six students to pair with six participants at Timberline.
The students went to Timberline twice a week this semester. The students first got to know the participants, who are between the ages of 24 and 96. They also took part in activities, like playing croquet, doing crafts and a mini field trip to the animal shelter.
During these sessions, the students and participants shared stories with each other, talking about their lives, significant experiences and interests. An article in Psychology Today, titled “Storytelling Is a Conduit for Intergenerational Learning” by Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, outlined the medical benefits of this kind of interaction between generations.
“Stories touch us because they allow us to connect to other people’s joy, pain and varied life experiences,” Mitchell wrote. “Neuroscience helps explain why storytelling stimulates rich inner learning and what we might learn from stories of people, young and old. Although stories are unscientific, often imprecise narratives of human thought, they help organize and integrate the neural networks of the brain. A well-told story contains emotions, thoughts, conflicts and resolutions.”
Timberline participant Kelly Faber, 27, is one of the younger participants. She said she enjoyed the experience hanging out with the school kids, especially going to the shelter with them to visit the animals there.
“It was fun reading to the kids and getting to know them,” Faber said.
Keith Walker, 64, also enjoyed the experience. Among the stories highlighted by the students during a presentation for the Rotary Club was a story he shared about getting into an accident on his grandfather’s farm when he was 12. It was an experience that impacted him and the rest of his life.
“I liked going to different places, walking down to the bike trail, and playing croquet,” Walker said.
Cheryllyn Goldsberry, 73, said she thought the kids were “cute” and that they asked her questions like what her favorite activity was (going to church) or her favorite color (pink) and how she likes to volunteer at the fire department.
“I’d like to do it again next year,” Goldsberry said. “I liked the sharing part, we were focused and interested in each other.”
As for the students, the experience was just as, if not more, fulfilling. Nascha Martinez, an 11-year-old in the sixth grade at the Peak School, was the youngest student to participate. She said she got a lot out of the elective. Martinez got to interview famous local Frank Walters, a 96-year-old who fought in World War II and still skis as of this season.
“The biggest part of it was having such a cool experience to get to know these people with different lives and different stories,” Martinez said. “Frank served in WWII, and I don’t think I’ve never known anyone who served in WWII. It was just like talking to another person, and it was a very special opportunity.”
Kamilla Stone, in the ninth grade, learned how to improve her interviewing skills with the visits. But working with the Timberline participants, Stone also learned more about patience and a key part of the human experience — empathy.
“I realized the participants sometimes had difficulty giving answers,” Stone said. “If we waited they would give answer. Although we’re stressed at everything in school, where everything had to be on schedule, here we had time to just sit back and listen and take in all the little details. It was a very truly impactful experience to me.”
Alberto Espinoza, an international student from Mexico in the 11th grade, said the experience talking to the Timberline participants and learning about their individual challenges gave him a better appreciation of what life gives us, good or bad.
“It doesn’t matter how much or little that life gives you, it’s about how you use that to your advantage,” Espinoza said. “It doesn’t matter if you start on the first or 50th floor. It’s a matter of going up the stairs. That’s what I got from it. I am truly grateful they let me be part of this experience.”