On any given spring day at Nazareth Home, in Louisville, Ky., the place is abuzz with high school and college students volunteering their time to the elders. On this day, however, a special group of students visited Nazareth Home after a brief exchange of emails and phone calls.
The idea of bringing these two groups together was a spark from a conversation many months ago, in which a community leader said, “Not everyone has grandparents, and not every grandparent has a child.”
Creating intergenerational dialogue and relationships isn’t new. However, the opportunities to make it happen are.

On The Same Page

On this particular occasion, the students, ages four to 11 years, didn’t don their school colors or sweatshirts that predicted their graduation date. Armed with smiles and their books, these students knew in just a few moments they were going to make friends and hear Dr. Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.” The elders knew they were going to entertain their visitors. What the student and elders didn’t know is that they were about to create lasting memories out of moments between friends.
The third-floor activity room filled with former teachers, war heroes, and men and women of faith. The students came from Family Scholar House, a local nonprofit that is changing lives, families, and communities through education. Each student has experienced poverty and domestic violence on various levels. For these students, their parents chose a specific path to create a better life for themselves and their children through education. While mom or dad was in class at one of the local universities, the young scholars were learning from a world that became more accessible from that activity room.
After introductions, the kids quickly took their places on the floor surrounded by the elders. The story began, and each student intently listened. Along the way, they shared laughs and silly moments of the story, and began to ask questions—it didn’t take long for intergenerational friendships to begin to form. After the story, the kids immediately began to read their own stories to the elders: The students had brought their favorite books and were practicing their newfound confidence in reading. The students periodically stopped reading to snag a sugar cookie for themselves—and their new friend. 
NH elder Margaret Mudd-FSH student.jpg 
Nazareth Home elder Margaret Mudd shares a story with a Family Scholar House student. 
Credit: Family Scholar House 

Not Judging A Book By Its Cover

This was the first time Nazareth Home, a long term care provider, and a local nonprofit that serves children had partnered together. Although the organizations serve two different populations, each can embrace the other.
The staff present witnessed several things helped the students and the elders. They quickly realized the relationships that formed gave the student and the older adult a sense of purpose; helped to alleviate fears children may have of the elderly; filled a void for children who do not have grandparents available to them; and, for the elders, helped keep family stories and living history alive.
Staff for both organizations overheard the kids asking the elders about their careers and where they were from. In turn, the elders inquired about the students’ favorite classes, what they wanted to be when they grew up, and “Who is this Harry Potter?” During the hour and a half, the elders and students took turns being the teacher and the learner.

Lessons Learned

Other lessons learned from thinking outside the box (more outside-the-building-and-down-the-street) is that bringing seniors and kids together doesn’t have to be this perfect moment. Instead, both parties took the moment and made it perfect. Both learned that many activities can be meaningful.

The next meeting will consist of small groups instead of one large group. The students and elders can choose to read together, work on puzzles, garden, or whatever else they may have in common. The key is to be flexible and allow the kids and the elders to “drive the car.”
These events don’t have to be costly either. Although each student received his or her own copy of the Dr. Seuss book to share with their classmates and families, the real value is what each person gave rather than what each received. The students also made and surprised the elders with bookmarks that had inspirational messages and quotes such as, A book is a device to ignite the imagination,” by Alan Bennett, and “There is no friend as loyal as a book,” by Ernest Hemingway. These timeless quotes fostered even more discussions between the students and elders.
Wherever there are novices and experts, old and young, there is some level of learning going on, some kind of teaching. Challenges turn into opportunities. For this particular group of compassionate folks, young and old, a community was created one story at a time.
Michael J. Buckman is director of development at Nazareth Home (www.nazhome.org/). He can be reached at (502) 473-2375 or mbuckman@nazhome.org.