Augustine: The value of intergenerational relationships

Kathryn Augustine, Op-Ed Contributor

When people hear the word “elderly,” stereotypical images usually pop in their minds: tufts of white hair, thick-rimmed glasses, rickety walkers and hearing aids. Some may even associate them with snide remarks at the dinner table.

Over the course of my childhood — and even now — both sets of my grandparents have been deeply involved in my life. From cheering at the finish line at cross country meets to surprising me with a hand-knitted blanket for college, they’ve never failed to demonstrate their unwavering support.

Because of the closeness I share with my grandparents, I decided to volunteer at the Weston Council on Aging in Weston, Massachusetts two summers ago. There, I delivered meals to seniors and helped with their technology troubles. While this experience was eye-opening to the struggles the elderly face on a daily basis, I didn’t truly grasp the value of forming relationships with elderly individuals, aside from my family members.

Forging genuine connections with the elderly is mutually beneficial and enriching — something I discovered this summer while working at an assisted living facility, Traditions of Wayland, in Wayland, Massachusetts.

The first day of work at Traditions, I approached Joan, a woman sitting in her wheelchair in a common area dubbed the “Great Room” following the usual cycle of morning exercises. When I talked with her about pursuing journalism in college, she went out of her way to introduce me to another resident, Kitty, who was one of the first women to work for The New York Times.

Hearing Kitty’s life story was fascinating. She spoke about traveling the world for stories, meeting significant political figures like President Truman and the difficulty of being a woman in the field. Many look at Kitty’s thin frame and oxygen tank and forget there is an extremely interesting person inside. She was a journalist at a major publication while balancing her family life and paving the way for women in the world of journalism.

On a regular basis, I hear other young students on campus devise creative excuses to avoid a trip to the gym. That is not the case for David, a 98-year-old veteran who came to morning exercise class religiously, using the heaviest handheld weights of all the residents at Traditions. In addition to his dedication to being physically fit, David has an impressively thorough collection of photo albums.

When David asked for assistance with a new computer program he installed, I followed him upstairs to his room. Right away, I was met with walls covered in paintings and a tall bookshelf with rows of photo albums, each with a labelled spine. The sheer volume of albums was mesmerizing, and I asked David about his apparent interest in photography.

Sitting down beside me, he thumbed through the pages of his treasured albums. Pointing to a picture of his late wife, he explained that she worked at Harvard University and met Albert Einstein on several occasions. I learned the paintings artfully positioned in his room were the works of his wife. He was so motivated to learn to use the computer software, because he planned to use that application to create postcards with his wife’s works featured. He went on to describe the pair’s worldly travels across Italy, across France and beyond.

When I talk to peers and acquaintances about working at an assisted living facility and the elderly as a whole, I am often met with a puzzled stare and a half-hearted “Fun” or “Nice.” This highlights just how set we can be in stereotypes and how unaware we often are of how unique and interesting every population of individuals is.

As a high school student, I could not begin to accurately envision the experiences of people living 30 years ago, nevermind 50 or 70 years back. Speaking with members of an older generation bridged that gap and taught me not to judge by appearance or the opinions of others. There’s a perception that the elderly are outdated and disconnected with the present. In reality, parallels exist between their multitude of life experiences and ours today. They faced many of the challenges we faced as teenagers and experienced many of the same emotions, just years earlier.

I encourage everyone to see through those preconceived notions by reaching out to an elderly individual in their community, allotting time to dive below surface-level conversations and giving that person undivided attention. I was astounded by all the elderly had to give, and everything that I had to offer in return.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.