New program unites generations from Boomers to Z

Society has mechanisms in place for those who want to adopt a child, and for children who need a parent. But what about those who would like to have a grandparent-grandchild connection?

UC San Diego and retirement community Casa de Mañana have joined forces to connect individuals of different generations. Senior student Karyn Speidel championed the initiative that began in April. “I’m an older student and I was taking an aging class with a lot of transfer older students, and we started to realize that we didn’t know or feel connected with the senior population, so we thought of creating a program that fostered a multi-directional support mechanism,” she explained. Speidel, who graduated in June, got a job that was created for her: UCSD’s Intergenerational Administrative Analyst.

The program, called Intergenerational Collaboration Initiative, had about 20 participants last year, equally distributed between seniors and students. It consists of two branches — weekly walks that depart from Casa de Mañana and monthly roundtable discussions. Speidel said the roundtable discussions are her favorite. “We talk about the students’ aspirations and what their cultural experiences are, and the older people share the values they grew up with,” she said. “They work together to create innovative ways to approach complex problems in the world.”

For Casa de Mañana life enrichment director Kelly Hillegeist, both branches of the project are equally important, and there is a place for everyone in it. “We have a resident who very much enjoys the walking group, but not the roundtable discussions. She loves being outdoors, she loves having someone right beside her, just giving her full attention. It’s interesting to get perspectives from both of these groups of participants who are doing this on a 100 percent voluntary basis. They come out here every week for the walking group, completely by choice.”

Resident Irma Cannon said she most enjoys the contact with younger generations. “I find out that the generational perspectives are so different; they go into areas I never anticipated,” she said, adding that the program is not only diverse in ages but also in cultural origins. “Among our group there are people who grew up in Peru or Lebanon, and among the students there’s one from Hong Kong, one from the Middle East, a couple people who come from a Mexican background, a Brazilian … it’s wonderful.”

But the conversations among different generations are not easy, Cannon pointed out. “During the first session we had, a number of the students talked very directly about how they did not want families, anyone to get in the way of what they wanted to accomplish, and that included relationships and partnerships. The older folks recognized that it’s one’s responsibility to society to help move things forward for others, and that piece seemed to be absent (in the younger generation). We suggested our next conversation be about the individual’s role in society, but the students decided they didn’t want to have that conversation.”

For Cannon there are also challenges when giving advice to the younger generations. “All the anxiety that students are experiencing in the early stages of their lives … we know they are going to be OK, because we’ve been through all that, and you know you land on your feet. So I think sometimes it’s challenging to hold back and not say, ‘Oh you’re going to be OK,’ because they need to have their own experiences and we want to give them the space they need to find out who they are in their own journeys.”

When asked what the younger students get out of the interactions, Hillegeist and Cannon said they often wondered the same thing, so La Jolla Light contacted 22-year-old student Genesis Hill, who participated in the first semester of the program, to get her input. She described the experience as a mentoring one. “Older generations are wiser than all of us. In the discussion and the walks, we have conversations, we tell our life stories, and I get to share mine, and people genuinely are curious about your life choices. … (I enjoy) learning from each person there, the older and younger generations coming together, trying to learn from each other what are the best decisions in life.”

Hill said she will continue to participate in the intergenerational walks and roundtables next year.

After the summer break, walks and roundtables will resume in October, mostly limited to Casa de Mañana residents and UCSD students and faculty. Those interested in participating can contact Karyn Speidel at kespeidel@ucsd.edu or Kelly Hillegeist at khillegeist@frontporch.net or visit sustain.ucsd.edu/initiatives/ici.html

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