February 3, 2021

Local “Seniors for Seniors” Program Has Brought “Rich Rewards” for Participants

By Anne Levin

A collaboration that emerged from the pandemic lockdown has forged new, meaningful relationships between teenagers and older adults. The first go-round of “Seniors for Seniors,” which paired seven high school seniors from Corner House with seven senior citizens from the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC) last spring, was such a success that a second program was put into place in the fall, this time with 10 from each organization.

The two groups interacted via Zoom and Facetime, getting to know each other and, in some cases, establishing real friendships. “When we first started this, we had no idea what to expect,” said Wendy Lodge, PSRC’s intergenerational programs coordinator. “But it was amazing. Once we got it going, we just kind of stepped back and watched the magic.”

The National Council on Aging defines intergenerational programming as an emerging field in which “activities or programs that increase cooperation, interaction, or exchange between any two generations.” Seniors for Seniors is part of PSRC’s continuing efforts to promote interactions between the generations. “Many senior centers will do an intergenerational program here and there, but we make it a regular part of our programmatic life,” said PSRC Executive Director Drew Dyson. “We have coordinators for this. It’s not just a one-time program. It’s a commitment. It shows the power of intergenerational relationships, and what people can learn from one another if they’re open to these kinds of diverse experiences.”

The idea for the program originated at Corner House, where student leaders create drug-and-alcohol-free activities for area youth. “Last year when COVID hit us, I was thinking, what can we do to make sure the kids continue to be socially active?,” said Prevention Programs Coordinator Riva Levy. “I thought about senior citizens, who could be lonely and isolated. I called Drew and Wendy, we talked, and that’s how it started.”

Volunteers from PSRC came from the group that has been part of the popular Grandpals program, in which seniors read with elementary school children (the program has been on hold during the pandemic). At Corner House, Levy had no trouble getting participants. “I read about each of the senior citizens, and based on that, connected them with each of the students,” she said. “At first, I thought it might be a chore for the students, but they all have reported how they looked forward to it, and learned from the senior citizens. The connection and interaction is beautiful. Some of them are at college now, and they have stayed in touch with the seniors.”

While the two groups have never been able to meet in person, there are hopes for an outdoor picnic at the end of the school year. “I think the older ones thought they’d be cheering up the younger ones, who were upset by having all of their activities canceled because of COVID,” said Dyson. And the younger ones thought they were caring for the elderly. What’s been really cool is that they each ended up getting rich rewards from the experience, which they might not have expected.”

In PSRC’s current annual report, one participant from the older group wrote: “The Seniors for Seniors initiative was very rewarding to me. The PHS senior that I was matched with was an incredibly inspiring young person. During our conversations I learned that he had been accepted and is planning to attend West Point Academy. Based on my own military background we found much to discuss. Along with that, we found our interests in cooking, technology, and family reached across the generations. It was especially thrilling to hear about his plans and to be assured that the younger generation and our future is in good hands.”

A Corner House participant wrote: “I was surprised by how quickly speaking to my senior evolved into as comfortable a situation as speaking to a friend my own age. Talking to my senior has become both a fun and thoughtful experience. I can honestly say I want to be like her when I grow up.”

This year’s program has a longer time frame than the original, which was planned for six weeks. “In the beginning, we gave both sides a list of questions to kind of get things going,” said Lodge. “But what’s ended up happening is that they found their own things. The seniors from our side came at this loving kids already. And the kids themselves are in leadership positions, so they are articulate. We had the cream of the crop on both sides, you could say. And they came at it with the right reasons. One of ours said it’s really a mutual love fest. They just love it.”