On paper, millennials and the GI and Silent Generations don’t have that much in common. Aside from the age difference, people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s grew up in what can feel like a completely different world than those currently in their teens.
However, when members of these disparate generations came together recently at The Esquiline, what they found was that they had more common ground and interests than they ever could have expected. By sharing stories and a few laughs, Esquiline residents and senior students from Althoff Catholic High School were able to form meaningful connections—and a new appreciation for each other.
How It Began
Seniors at Althoff Catholic have a service component to their education that’s required for all seniors. It’s a commitment both the school and the seniors take seriously. Every January, students are asked to spend three weeks with a local organization. The choice is theirs—the school simply provides the avenue by giving them a list of organizations. This year, one of the organization that was chosen was The Esquiline.
“When we heard about it, we were just thrilled,” said Jennifer Murphy, Director of Life Enrichment at The Esquiline. “That’s part of our dimensions of wellness we like to foster—that intergenerational connection. So we absolutely agreed to it.”
Four students spent three weeks volunteering their time at The Esquiline. As Jennifer explained, they played a vital role in launching an important program.
“They were instrumental in developing a program we’ve wanted to develop internally. Some organizations call it a life story—essentially, it’s about gathering stories from the people who live with us,” Jennifer said.
Gathering Life Stories, Forming Friendships
Using an interview format with direction from The Esquiline administration, Althoff students Addie, Emily, Sophie, and Lexi set about gathering life stories from residents. During their conversations with residents, the girls gathered critical information about the residents’ backgrounds.
“The students would then input that data into spreadsheets. The idea is to put that data to use. The concept being, we really need to take a look at that with our activity coordinators to see if we’re holding true to our mission, which is to create programing tailored to the people who live here,” Jennifer said.
She went on to say that the administration at The Esquiline had no idea what would come out of these life stories. Staff at the Life Plan Community (also known as a continuing care retirement community) enjoy getting to know residents and truly enjoy meaningful relationships with them. However, they were looking forward to the results of this project to improve their knowledge of the people living at the community.
For example, many were surprised to learn that one resident, Terry, used to be a state legislator for Alaska. An avid traveler, Terry wowed the Althoff students with his backstory.
“It was just remarkable. … It was so much fun to see our residents’ eyes light up when they shared their past,” Jennifer said. “It’s hard sometimes when you’re a young person coming into an environment like ours. It can be difficult to find common ground. But it was fun for us to provide content for these young people, to give them a tool to connect with the seniors that live with us.”
An Opportunity for Intergenerational Friendships
As much as the staff at The Esquiline got out of the program, the students and residents got even more. There were many fun and meaningful connections made in the course of the three weeks, but a few stick out.
One resident, Betty, shared with the students that she loved cheese pizza. To surprise her, the students bought a pizza for Betty and had a little pizza party with her in the skilled nursing Dammert Care Center.
There was also a fun connection between one of the girls and a resident, Ralph. After talking for a bit, they discovered that Ralph had grown up in the same neighborhood as the student’s grandfather and had in fact been good friends with him.
“It was so fun for her to hear that. She started a further conversation and found out information about her grandpa getting into some mild mischief in the neighborhood,” Jennifer said. “Ralph was so touched to have known that person in his childhood, and then sit with his grandchild years later.”
Ralph happens to have an excellent sense of humor and shared with the girls a story about his mobility scooter. One day, after leaving his scooter out in a common area, he came back to find that it had been toilet papered.
“He was laughing, thought it was the funniest thing. It made him feel special that someone took the time to prank him,” Jennifer said. However, this gave the students an idea. “So the kids ended up reenacting the toilet papering on their own, writing him a note saying that they hoped it brightened his day. And he loved it—he loved that they were listening.”
A Future in the Senior Living Field?
The need for senior health workers is always growing. However, the workforce doesn’t always keep pace with that need.
“We always struggle in this field of aging with ‘how do we recruit young people to seek out this career?’ Many of us that work in this field sort of fell into it from other careers—we didn’t necessarily seek it out. And young people aren’t necessarily drawn to this or don’t know what it is, or have misconceptions of what senior living is all about,” Jennifer explained.
That’s part of the reason why having the students take the time to see what senior living is all about can be so beneficial.
“Every single one of them left here saying ‘I’m so surprised at how much I enjoyed being with the residents.’ It just takes a shift in their perception of senior living for us to have done our job,” Jennifer said. “Maybe these people will seek out the field of senior living where maybe they wouldn’t have before.”
Benefits for Both Generations
The seniors enjoyed sharing their stories with the students. It was a fulfilling experience for them to have the platform to talk about their careers and adventures. However, they weren’t the only ones to benefit from it.
“Not only did the seniors come to life and have a moment of pride to talk about their occupations and travel, their legacies, but the students were also brought to life. It was just so neat to see,” Jennifer said. “The students went home and told stories to their families about our residents and have since visited again with their parents.”
Jennifer credits the students for their amazing work and dedication to the project.
“They were so phenomenal and impressive; they took it so seriously,” she said. “It was so lovely to see their effort.”
More Opportunities for Intergenerational Activities
As mentioned, intergenerational opportunities are a part of The Esquiline’s overall wellness philosophy. Local school groups often visit for holiday events or to share their talents with the community. Additionally, there are currently three ongoing senior capstone projects from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.