Homer Senior Citizens Inc. wants to better connect all generations in the Homer community to ease loneliness, improve health and spread knowledge.
The new intergenerational program, which the organization announced at the Senior Summit in October, is recruiting participants and ramping up to start in the new year.
HSC Executive Director Keren Kelley’s idea for the intergenerational program started with a vision for the community as a whole.
“The program is significant to developing the whole community,” Kelley said. “If you look at the old Midwest towns that many of these people grew up in, you had the senior, middle and youth and they all take care of each other. I didn’t see that in Alaska.”
HSC already has some intergenerational events, such as the Senior Fashion Show and an upcoming talent show in February. However, she wants to make intergenerational interactions a regular occurrence rather than a special occasion.
By engaging the community from young children through middle-age adults to get involved with Homer’s senior population, the program will help improve mental, emotional and physical health of the town’s oldest citizens, said Activities and Volunteer Manager Daniel Weisser, who researched and designed the intergenerational program at Kelley’s request.
“The senior population is a lonely population and they’re a wealth of information to younger generations. By enhancing socialization, it improves the overall health of all,” Weisser said. “I remember being around seniors as a kid and loved it. It’s why I’m here now. People don’t know how to get involved so if you have an intergenerational program it gives structure.”
Reducing loneliness in the senior population through interaction with younger generations will improve emotional health and will lead to overall wellbeing, Weisser said.
“They’re finding that when emotional health is enhanced, it goes into physical and mental health as well,” Weisser said.
In turn, the senior population will also be able to overall improve the health of the community members they form relationships with by bestowing wisdom and friendship on the younger generations. Kelley said she thinks that the children in the community will benefit from having a connection with seniors.
“I think it’s why children in the community are lost. They need an umbrella of wisdom,” Kelley said. “I always hear that’s there’s nothing for the kids to do, and we do great children’s advocacy here. … They’re missing seniors. Having one in your life allows you to go to someone for mentoring, companionship, and to have someone who is going to be a positive influence. When you don’t have that bond, you have a disconnected community.”
Throughout the course of the next year, HSC will collect data on how all participants are affected by the program, Kelley said. Kelley plans to present the outcomes of the intergenerational program at the March 2018 American Society on Aging conference. She also will write a how-to book to help other senior centers create their own intergenerational program.
Kelley’s grandparents were a big influence on her, she said. If she didn’t have that relationship, she wouldn’t be where she is today.
“They helped me through challenging times,” Kelley said.
In turn, her children were raised in and around the senior centers Kelley has worked in and are more comfortable talking to adults, whereas often she sees others in younger generations shy away from engaging an elder.
“In that atmosphere, you become more well-rounded. I want that for other children.”
The intergenerational program’s goal is to start children as young as age 1 interacting with seniors to create a lifelong bond that will carry into adulthood. The program has five groups that includes each stage of life: program, projects, personal, partner and payback. At every stage, participants create relationships with seniors, but each have a unique goal so as to provide structure to the interactions. A person of any age can participate in the appropriate stage of the program.
Program encompasses children ages 1-10 who would come to the senior center for structured, pre-organized activities like musicals or store reading, Weisser said. Toddlers and younger children in the age range could come in with their parents, for instance, for the seniors to interact with. Elementary-age children could also come to the senior center with their school as part of a class trip. This age group requires adult supervision by parents or staff from their organization or school when at the senior center.
Projects is designed for middle-school-age children and encompasses ages 11-14, Weisser said. These children would be expected to accomplish volunteer assignments while supervised by HSC staff. High school age youths, ages 15-18, are involved in Personal, which allows the youths to work independently with the senior population. This age group would assist seniors, be a part of their everyday lives, and choose activities to do. High school students would also have questions to ask seniors, which can help start conversations between the two generations, and include the answers in a report about how the intergenerational program has impacted them, Weisser said.
Partner allows college-age students to share the knowledge they learn in their classes with seniors by cultivating activities that the senior population would attend outside the HSC facility, Weisser said. Weisser plans to engage students at Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College and local bible colleges.
Payback, which encompasses the age range, starts at age 23 and extends through the decades, is for career-centered adults to give back to the senior population. This group includes both business owners and business workers, Weisser said. Individuals in Payback lead activities and volunteer with seniors, taking what they have learned and creating a connection with HSC residents.
Weisser is in the process of talking to local schools and laying the groundwork for the students to participate in the program. He also plans to talk with organizations, groups, clubs, churches and businesses in the area about getting involved with the intergenerational program. There is already interest from the community, Weisser said.
The intergenerational program is set up in a people-centered way so that anyone can participate and do so in a way that they are comfortable and motivated, he said. Kelley and Weisser recognize that what works for one person, may not work for another, and diversity is something that they want to grow through the program.
“Regardless of skill set, there’s a place for you to pour into the life of a senior in some capacity. We will take your skill set and put you in a place that will allow you to thrive.”
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.