Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


The Seniors-to-Seniors Project – An Intergenerational Experience

Submitted by: Kathleen Mayo, OLOS Subcommittee on Older Adults

Last fall I attended a service learning/volunteer workshop at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), my local state university.  I was hoping to interest one of the professors in working with me on an intergenerational project.  As luck would have it, I met Maria Roca, a professor in the Communications Dept., and she thought this sounded like a great partnership.  We would train students to work with older adults living in assisted living facilities as well as those attending adult daycare and congregate meal programs.  They would make connections with individuals and small groups through intellectually stimulating activities that would encourage thoughtful discussion.

I was looking for three – five students who would like to pilot test this idea for me since I was writing a grant proposal that would involve training a volunteer corps to do the actual project.  Dr. Roca had a different idea.  She wanted her two classes of senior Communications majors to take this on as a class project with each student contributing at least 20 service learning hours in addition to the training.  We now had 50 students who would contribute a total of 1,000 hours!

At the time, I was the Outreach Services Manager for the Lee County Library System (LCLS) in Fort Myers, Florida.  The library had a long track record of serving older adults through its Books-by-Mail, Talking Books, and Senior Outreach services.  It also had a great collection of programming resources that included two sets of each BiFolkal kit and large collections of music CDs and large print titles.

Dr. Roca divided the classes into 10 teams of five students.  Each team would work together to develop programs and plan activities for the site that they would be visiting.  Their first visit would be a meet and greet where they got to meet the Activity Director and start to know the older adults they’d be working with.  Each team was assigned to a facility or program; one large facility had two teams.  The teams would then make four to six visits to a facility over the next two months.  One member of each team was a memory keeper who recorded important insights from the group discussions.

Since all of this would be happening during one semester (January through April 2010), we started our training in week two.  I enlisted the help of two experienced activity coordinators for the first session.  We introduced the students to the aging process, the life experiences and interests of people in this age group, and the realities of life for the seniors we would be meeting. We also explained the role of the activity coordinators in these sites.  The students shared their perceptions of aging, described the oldest people they knew, and shared some of their concerns.  

At our second training I focused on a few programming ideas for them to use.  We discussed reminiscence-based programming ideas and practiced with BiFolkal kits.  The kits have excellent program manuals and the students enjoyed thinking of ways to personalize them for their own groups.  I introduced them to reader’s theater and the steps involved in picking topics, finding pieces to read, and using props.  We also discussed the process of creating thematic programs using library resources.  We picked some possible topics and discussed the music, poetry, short stories, and coffee table books they might use to develop the program.

At least one person from each team also received training in the People and Stories program.  Roberta Reiss, a local People and Stories trainer, presented the all day workshop on a Saturday and introduced the students and Dr. Roca to this program model.  It uses short stories to elicit thoughtful discussion in a group setting.  In the process the group explored the methodology of group interaction and facilitation. 

As Communications majors - often with a broadcast focus – most of the students had outgoing personalities and a natural ability to socialize well.  Adding this to Dr. Roca’s enthusiasm we had a strong group who were highly motivated.  In fact, I explained to them that they could not fail.  Just being young and friendly would help them to do no wrong in the eyes of the seniors they would encounter.   

After their training the teams started setting up meetings with the Activity Coordinators at their facilities and planning their meet and greets with the elders.  Most Coordinators plan their activities at least a month in advance so the teams had to fit into those schedules.

The student/senior encounters proved to be successful on many fronts.  I was especially proud of how flexible the students were in adapting to the environments they faced and the varied needs of their seniors.  Here are some of their experiences: 

  • One team of white, middle class students visited African American seniors at a facility with a congregate meal site.  These low income seniors had little education but they had amazing life experiences to share with the students.  The students were eager to hear their stories and developed friendships in spite of their age and cultural differences.
  • At a few assisted living facilities many of the residents had memory problems and the students had to adapt to their short attention span.  They discovered the value of music and used songs as part of all their programs.  Dancing was another popular activity, even for people using wheelchairs who liked to be pushed.
  • Some of the groups found that one-on-one relationships worked best with their elders. This was especially true where people had memory issues. 
  • At one meal site the seniors attended to play rubby cube and didn’t want to stop for other activities.  The students, instead, joined in their games and got to have some good discussions with the seniors. 
  • The BiFolkal kits were a hit with several sites, especially where the Activity Directors got involved and helped them tailor the kits to the seniors’ interests.  Because of their age difference, the students had to approach these programs as a chance for the seniors to teach them something about the past.
  • One facility had a number of younger residents with disabilities who were living in assisted living instead of at home because the state didn’t pay for a personal care aide.  This was one of the sites where People and Stories was most effective and the residents took special interest in the student visits.
  • People enjoyed listening to stories and this led to good conversations.  Since so many of the seniors have hearing loss this was not always easy to handle. 

The students’ reactions were telling: 

  • They all expressed that they had gone into the project with some definite stereotypes about elders, many of them negative.  These changed when they had the opportunity to talk to people face-to-face and see them as complicated individuals with interesting lives.
  • They were concerned that so few people in assisted living situations seemed to have visitors.  A number of their seniors were looking forward to seeing family members at Easter and no one came.  This really upset the students and made them think about connections to their own family members.
  • Several students planned to go back to visit some of the people in their groups.  They had made friendships that they wanted to continue.  One team was going back to attend a “senior prom” event.
  • A couple of students started talking about possible careers working with seniors.  This project had opened up a whole new career path for them.
  • Many found that morning was the best time to visit.  They also learned that people love to talk about themselves.

Dr. Roca is continuing the Senior-to-Senior project with her fall 2010 class of  30 seniors and we will be making a number of changes based on the spring experience. 

  • We’ll have the teams spend more time with their seniors getting to know them and their interests while they plan any activities as a group. 
  • We’ll have the Activity Coordinators take on a more active role.  Although the Activity Coordinators had received calls and written information from me, some of them did not take their role seriously enough and missed out on mentoring opportunities for the students.  In the future we’ll devote more time to establishing these relationships since that seemed to make a big difference in the success of the project. 
  • In the training I need to stress the importance of making and keeping appointments.  A couple of teams could not stick to their schedules and this was a problem for the facilities where people were waiting for them.
  • We’ll put more emphasis on personalizing reminiscence-based activities and introduce them to the StoryCorps project with its oral history elements.  Dave Isay has edited two books on the StoryCorps experiences (Listening is an Act of Love and Mom, a Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps) that will be good discussion starters.

Other good news is that the grant project was funded and will start in October.  I’ll be recruiting for volunteers among people of all ages, including a few university students.  Lee County is home to a huge number of older adults so there is plenty of need for activities that promote intellectual stimulation and thoughtful discussion. I’m retired now and will be heading this up for a year as a volunteer myself. 

Kathy Mayo




New Columns Video: Parade of Bookmobiles @ Annual 2010

Video highlights from the 2010 Parade of Bookmobiles, featuring interviews with Subcommittee on Bookmobiles Chair Michael Swendrowski and Stephanie Seipp with the Baltimore County Public Library. The Parade of Bookmobiles was a highlight of ALA's fifth-annual Bookmobile Sunday, held on June 27, 2010 during the 2010 ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Attendees were able to board bookmobiles from 7 agencies and 2 manufacturers - one coming as far away as Montana.

This year's Bookmobile Sunday was organized by the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), the OLOS Subcommittee on Bookmobiles and the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS), and sponsored by All-American Specialty Vehicles, Matthews Specialty Vehicles, Meridian Specialty Vehicles, OBS, Inc., and Farber Specialty Vehicles.