A bus from Friends Academy, in Locust Valley, pulled up at the Glen Cove Senior Center for a field trip on the morning of Nov. 8. But instead of taking in the sights of a museum or learning about a monument, the students — against expectations — were there to interact with their elders in order to learn a thing or two.
The high schoolers joined the seniors in the dining room, where they found a list of “icebreaker” questions on each table to help spark conversation between the generations.
“For the students, this is really about getting to know the seniors, and for our seniors, this is about getting to know the young people, and finding some common ground,” said Eric Shuman, the senior center’s activity coordinator. “What’s really surprising is, at the end of it, they realize just how much they have in common, even though there are differences.”
The center has hosted this intergenerational program with Friends Academy for the past couple of years, inviting a new group of students almost every month to sit and talk with the seniors and share their experiences, likes and dislikes, and hobbies. The program is run speed-dating style, with two to four students sitting with one or two seniors in five-minute sets, then rotating to a new group when time is up.
The program’s success, Shuman said, is proven each time it is held by the seniors who keep coming back. “We have some seniors who’ve been doing this every time, and they haven’t missed one,” he said. “They get a lot out of it.”
Laraine Peterson, of Glen Cove, is a newcomer to the intergenerational program. The 77-year-old said she believes that talking with younger people is a good way to keep her mind sharp. “It keeps you going,” she said. “When you get to a certain age, you need to be more motivated to do things, and by talking to them and getting their inputs, it helps your mind.”
“At first, when they’re walking in, you can kind of tell that they’re nervous and not sure what to expect,” Shuman said of the students. “And by the end of it they’re slapping five with the seniors, hugging them, laughing with them. It’s really nice to see.”
As the program went on, the energy in the room morphed from nervous to curious, as the groups swapped stories, smiles and laughs. They talked about Facebook, their favorite bands, the evolution of technology and how they all grew up. Two students — who were told about the seniors’ trip to the Broadway show “Beautiful” the night before — pulled out their iPhones and showed the seniors pictures they’d taken on a school trip to another show, “Come From Away.”
Student Vincenzo Fodera, 14, of Old Brookville, said he was most interested in what the seniors had to say about his generation. “They talked about how their grandkids are really obsessed with video games now, and how they wished [their grandkids had] grown up back then,” he said, adding that he learned “how different their lives were.”
The most important takeaway for Vincenzo, he said, was the realization that he should be grateful for the things he has. “It kind of teaches me not to take advantage of the stuff I have now, because back then they didn’t have all the tools we have now,” he said. “It teaches me that I should write more on paper, and take out a book and read once in a while.”
Shuman said he has seen “great interactions” grow out of the program, particularly for seniors who have more to gain from speaking with young people on a regular basis. “It’s a way for them to connect with the youth if they don’t have family or friends nearby that have young children,” he said. “They [can] also . . . educate them a little bit on what it is to be a senior and what they have to endure.”
For Ethel Townsend, 91, it’s something even simpler. Engaging with the students, she said, helps her retain her youth. “I felt young again,” she said with a laugh.