Tied Together: IC Connects Students with Seniors

The lights cast a low glow over the dance floor and the music stopped. The big moment had arrived: the queen and king of the senior prom were about to be named. But it wasn’t the captain of the football team and the head cheerleader who bounded up to the stage. It was Jerome Van Buren, age 86, and Lana Pfann, age 71.

“My high school held a similar ‘senior citizen prom,’ and it was so much fun that I was inspired to do it in Ithaca,” says Mary Claire Hartford ’15, a clinical health studies/physical therapy major. “This is a great chance to branch out and really connect with a bunch of different people.”

Hartford organized the event, which drew more than 70 seniors and about 110 students from both Ithaca College and Cornell University, through her work with a student organization called Project Generations. In partnership with the Tompkins County Office for the Aging, Project Generations aims to reduce social stigma about senior citizens and recognize their value as community members—and friends. It does this by matching IC students with older adult companions to do things like chat, drink coffee, and play chess. The pairs get together one-on-one each week, forging relationships that can last for years.

Hartford got very close to her paired senior, “Grandma” Ruth, who she began visiting as a freshman. They met regularly to drink hot cocoa, bake cookies, and talk about how much Ithaca had changed in the last 94 years. Now in her junior year, Hartford talks about how much she learned.

 “My experiences with Ruth have reinforced [for me] that no matter a person’s generation, background, experiences, and beliefs, we are more similar than we think we are,” Hartford said.

Although Ruth has passed away, Hartford continues to have hot cocoa and cookies on Sundays in her honor and says Ruth will always be a part of her family.

“We live in such a different world than our grandparents did, and there is so much history,” Hartford says. “I find this population so intriguing. You don’t realize how much seniors go through.”

A Growing Generation

According to the federal Administration on Aging (AoA), the population that is 65 and older increased 18 percent from 2000 to 2011 and is projected to grow to 79.7 million in 2040. AoA also estimates that, once a woman reaches 65 years of age, she’ll live 20.4 more years—and a man will live an additional 19.2 years. Undoubtedly, students who are in college today will graduate into a professional world where working with older adults is a matter of course—the rule, not the exception.

“This is a growing market,” says Tom Grape ’80. “It’s a pretty entrepreneurial field and an immature industry. Because of that, you can have new ideas.”

Grape is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Benchmark Senior Living, a company that offers personalized services such as independent living, traditional assisted living, and respite stays to its residents. Benchmark has 50 locations in the Northeast and employs about 4,500 people.

“What we do here touches peoples’ lives in a very personal way,” says Grape, who also serves as chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees. “For folks who feel a calling to serve others, there are a lot of different paths one can end up following. In a field like this, where people are using not only their head but their heart, you have to have the passion for it.”

Rhoda Meador, director of IC’s Gerontology Institute, is instilling that passion in IC’s undergraduates.

“Never in the history of the world have there been so many older people living and active. It’s a completely new thing for our society,” says Meador. “No matter what we do professionally, we’re going to be interacting with more older people.”

IC’s Gerontology Institute houses the aging studies major and minor programs. It’s one of the college’s smaller majors, but the program plays a critical role in cultivating an array of interdisciplinary opportunities. Meador says a big aspect of the program is focused on outreach to community agencies, which takes place in the form of things like professional workshops and distinguished speaker events—all of which are open to professors and students.

Friendly Neighbors

About a half-mile south of IC on Route 96B is Longview, a residential facility that houses about 200 older adults and is one of IC’s community partners. Collaborations between Longview and IC stretch back to 1998 and focus on ways to enrich the college curriculum with intergenerational social and educational experiences. This happens through internships, fieldwork, volunteer opportunities, and research projects, and activities through this partnership engage about 300 students a semester.

The experiences are mutually beneficial: IC students expand the scope of their education in a real-life setting, and senior participants benefit from lifelong learning opportunities—including the ability to audit courses at the college in almost any discipline free of charge.

“Allowing Longview residents to audit IC courses created these intergenerational learning labs for almost all of my [aging studies] classes,” says Dan Gutkoski ’07, who graduated with degrees in gerontology (now called aging studies) and health policy studies. “And it allowed us to have a panel of experts who could share their own experiences of aging directly with us students.”

Gutkoski is now a health system specialist in the Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care Operations for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. He’s been employed by the VA for nearly eight years, and before that he did his internships at IC with the organization, experiences that he says were pivotal to his education.

Angela Recchiuti ’11 also earned her IC degree in aging studies. She agrees with Gutkoski—the internship experiences in addition to in-class learning gave her an edge.

“When it comes to finding an entry-level job in the field of aging, hands-on experience is crucial,” Recchiuti says. “Not only did working in the field help me figure out exactly what I wanted to do, but it also gave me excellent experiences that I could apply to my current job at the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter.”

Learning from the Past

His first year teaching at IC, Associate Professor of History Michael Smith had some Longview residents in his classes.

“The insights these men and women provided were so unique, and the undergraduates in the classes seemed to really appreciate their presence,” he said.

So in 2002 Smith began organizing discussion groups between students in his U.S. history courses and residents at Longview. He gave students an optional class assignment in which they met with residents at Longview on three different evenings to discuss 20th century U.S. history. The initial project was so successful, he incorporated these discussion groups into his U.S. in the Age of the Cold War course as a required assignment.

There have been five cohorts of IC students to participate in the project and roughly 40 Longview residents.

As one student wrote, "Each discussion supported a bridge connecting the old with the young. In turn, these bridges made real relationships between past and present. For example, modern welfare is easier to understand when learned about from an elderly gentleman who gained employment in Ithaca's state parks via the WPA. Women's suffrage carries greater significance when a resident tells of a pro-vote parade passing her house when she was a little girl."

One Longview resident said, “I think it's good for [the students] to get a perspective of how things change in cycles and how things go.  It's good for me too because it helps me understand the younger generation and how they feel about things.  And I think that’s very important.”

Green Seniors

Collaborative, inter-generational learning is not solely for students in the aging studies or history programs. The experience Mary McKean ’15 has had proves that.

McKean is an environmental studies major. Last year, she facilitated IC’s Retirees in Service of the Environment (RISE) program. RISE is a joint project of the Ithaca College Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, the Ithaca College Natural Lands, the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute, and Longview.

“RISE struck me as something that was really unique and empowering,” McKean says. “I’m passionate about the environment and about preserving it. I just think the world is so beautiful, and it’s so important to have a personal relationship with it.”

RISE brings together IC students and local retirees through indoor workshops and outdoor excursions. The group explores big-picture topics—energy conservation, land management, and environmental stewardship—as well as day-to-day things like gardening, bird-watching, and citizen biology. The retirees who participate are asked to spend about five hours a week on environmental projects, either on campus in the organic garden or off campus on the Ithaca College Natural Lands, 560 acres of natural lands owned by the college and located on South Hill, across Route 96B, and in neighboring Newfield, New York. Retirees may also gather at Longview during the semester to discuss their experiences in the field and delve into new topics.

Catherine Thomson, a Newfield resident, learned about the RISE program through an ad in the Ithaca Journal. Since she joined RISE, she’s taken on stewardship activities on a parcel of property the college owns in Newfield. Thomson says participating in the program gives her an opportunity to get out into the woods—something she normally wouldn’t do. She also enjoys the liveliness of the indoor group sessions.

“One thing sparks another—there is no ‘off topic,’” Thomson says. “We have such a wealth of experience around the table that we share with one another. It’s terrific.”

Re-Learning Life Skills

Longview also provides a home for another IC program—the Center for Life Skills. CLS provides rehabilitation opportunities for individuals in the Ithaca-area community who have experienced a stroke or other neurological trauma. For students in IC’s occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, and recreational therapy programs, CLS provides experiential and service-learning opportunities.

“There are other programs that bring together students of one or two disciplines, but we are the only one in the nation that pulls together four,” says Catherine Gooch, the center’s director. “There’s nothing else out there that is as ongoing and collaborative as our program is.”

CLS started in 2000. Each spring and fall semester, three days a week, IC students and program participants gather at the center. In the early days of each semester, students work with faculty members, program participants, and sometimes participants’ family members to set goals. The rest of the time is spent achieving them.

Andrea Hammer has been participating in Center for Life Skills programs for three years. She experienced a stroke, which compromised her right side and left her with aphasia, a disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control language. Her main goal when she started at CLS was straightforward: she wanted to speak again.

“That was a very clear goal, and I had a really good gal, a grad student, who helped me,” says Hammer, who was a lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cornell University before her stroke. “She worked me very hard, and I mean that in a good way. I think this program is terrific. I just can’t tell you how much it’s helped me. I would be lost without it.”

In fall 2013, 62 students worked at the center to help about 10 community participants. Because students come from so many different programs, the opportunities for true interdisciplinary learning are many. Let’s say a participant wants to decorate cookies. The physical therapist can work on goals like functional ambulation, balance, and standing tolerance by having the participant walk back and forth to gather and carry all of the items. In the same session, the occupational therapist can work on cognitive sequencing (following the recipe), visual perception (decorating the whole cookie rather than just part of it), and upper extremity coordination and strengthening (rolling out the dough and cutting the cookies).

“We’re cultivating a sense of how everything works together; we are learning how to become generalists,” says Ally Kass ’15, a first-year graduate student in physical therapy. Kass has worked at CLS for two semesters. “For us to go out and do everything, we need to be exposed to everything.”

“Flexibility is big for all of us,” adds Alyssa Zonneville ’14, a second-year speech therapy master’s degree student. “We have to be prepared to switch things around.”

From the Center for Life Skills to Project Generations to the Gerontology Institute, Ithaca College has the resources that enable students not only to follow their academic path—but also to weave in experiences that cultivate their versatility as professionals and as human beings.

“The experience of interacting with older people really enriches our students and gives them a leg up when they go out into the world,” Meador says. “Our students develop and have the most important competencies for being able to succeed: the ability to interact with a variety of people, to be able to handle themselves, to be able to communicate effectively, and to be able to appreciate people’s differences. In a way, aging is just one more diversity.”

Read more about Mary Claire Hartford '15 and her "Grandma Ruth."