Senior connections between the old and young in Nevada County
Around 2006, Marika Beck was visiting her grandmother in Tucson, Arizona.
While there, the current English teacher at Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning noticed something about many elderly: they were disconnected from others.
“I just felt like there’s this whole group of people who have lived these incredible lives and are essentially housed away,” said Beck.
That sentiment stuck with her into the current school year, when Beck decided to have her senior English students connect with elders and capture their stories through multimedia projects.
“I think old people get a bad rap, and teenagers get a bad rap but if you put them together, magic can happen,” she said.
In February, 17 groups of 44 students were paired with about 20 senior citizens at Eskaton Village, a Grass Valley retirement community. In May, the students will produce 17 mini-documentaries, in addition to several written pieces, about their experiences with elders.
In class, Beck’s students have been reading experts of Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” and exploring the significance of developing personal connections with those you would otherwise never meet.
“That’s why I became a teacher,” said Beck. “Relationships matter more than anything else.”
Sitting with students and senior citizens at Eskaton Village Thursday, high schoolers reported often feeling anxious when they were first paired with elders.
“Honestly, I was so scared,” said Robyn Lindquist. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Student Madison Schindler agreed.
“I was kind of nervous because we’re coming to their home and just intruding on their life,” she said.
Student concerns, however, quickly dissipated the more time they spent with elders, and recognized the commonalities and comforts between them.
“This guy’s like my grandpa now,” said student Eric Voss of his elder, who plans to regularly visit the Eskaton resident in his free time.
‘WHAT MAKES A LIFE WORTH LIVING?’
The senior building bridges intergenerational memoir project is meant to challenge students to answer philosophical questions. Namely, “Why are we here?” and “What makes a life worth living?”
One student felt inspired to take more control of her life after learning her elder, Brenda Heeke, use to fly hot air balloons.
“It got me thinking that this is my life, and I choose what to do with it,” said Grace Austermiller. Schindler, of the same student-elder group, learned a similar sentiment.
“I think a lot of people our age don’t realize you can go out and do anything that you want to do,” she said. “You don’t need to go to a college that your parents want you to go to and get a job that they want you to get because it’s not their life, it’s yours.”
Voss was intrigued by how much people experiencing the end of their life could teach about early life stages. The student said his elder had been struggling with a stroke, and his elder’s wife had endured breast cancer, but their collective optimism taught Voss how to age with grace and grit.
“I use to be worried about death,” he said, “but hearing about their experiences and their lives, I realized I don’t have anything to worry about it. Death is going to happen whether I want it to or not. I just have to be ready for it.”
Learning both ways
Relationships, though, are two-way streets, and elders, like Dorothy Kain, also felt empowered by their newfound friendships.
“These are two just beautiful young women, and I’m quite impressed with how grounded they are in this age,” said Kain. The elder said she loves seeing photos of goats student Katherine Snook brings her.
Beck has seen an evolution in her students’ perspectives. Before the project, she said, they weren’t as aware of what people had to offer. That has begun to change.
“They started to see people around them as being more than what they expected them to be,” she said.
On the final day of students and elders sharing life stories at Eskaton, the group gathered upstairs around a square banister overlooking the first floor. Beck read a poem, and each student and elder were required to say one closing word of gratitude before the students returned to Sierra Academy.
Elder Kain chose five in reference to her student documenters.
“I want to adopt them,” she said.
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled an Arizona city. It is spelled Tucson.
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