Project Generations Masters the Art of Creating a Caring Community
Tori, an Ithaca College masters student in Occupational Therapy, is chatting with me over finger sandwiches and veggie roll-ups. We are table mates at the annual banquet for Project Generations, an intergenerational initiative that pairs college students with community Elders in Ithaca, NY, where I live.
Project Generations is more than a friendly visiting program; it’s about building close and continuing relationships, many of them over the course of several years. In Tori’s case, she and Liz, her Project Generations partner, have connected on a weekly basis for the last four years.
She shares a tender story with me of their devotion to each other.
“When she’s sick, I’m there, and when I’m sick, she’s there,” Tori explains. Once, when Tori was hospitalized suddenly and admitted to the ICU, it was Liz who was the first one by her side, “She just had this outpouring of love for me. It was just 100% unconditional.” As Tori’s story unfolds, the depth of their relationship is clear, rich in the ups and downs of daily life. “Liz has been through all of the boyfriends,” she adds with a smile.
As lunch continues, the plot thickens. Rachel, another Project Generations member, bounds into the room, delighted to “show off her awesome Mr. Jacobs” to her friends. The repartee between Rachel and Mr. Jacobs is priceless, truly the stuff of two people who just “get” each other. The two have roughly 40-50 years between them, but clearly they are twin souls. Talking about their shared affinity for chess, Rachel affectionately goads her partner. “I’m a better chess player than you now. The student has become the master, my friend!”
And then, there is Mary Claire and Megan. Today is a bittersweet day for each of them. Mary Claire has lost her Project Generations partner of three years only a few weeks ago. Megan lost her grandfather, who she describes as one of the most influential people in her life, only three months ago. The scene around her can’t help but stir tender memories of their relationship. I am deeply touched by these two women’s stories about these special Elders in their lives and the very obvious impact they have had on them.
Why am I here? I’ve been asked to be the featured speaker for the Project Generations banquet, but the notion of “speaking” to this inspiring intergenerational audience seems a little ridiculous to me. From the minute I met them, it was clear to me that any learning this group and I would do together would come to life through their stories — not mine. Standing up and talking “at them” just didn’t strike me as an option. So, we turned instead to the power of simple conversation.
Pulling our chairs into a circle, we began with the subject of ageism, as a point of reference – what it means, its impact on people of all ages, and how it breeds loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. This group’s work (and play) together, I noted, was an excellent example of how a single relationship can help break down the barriers that ageism creates between people of different ages. Ranging in age from 19 to 93, we reflected on the following question: “What has surprised you the most about the relationship you have built with your Project Generations partner? “
For Tori, it is two things. “I always used to quit everything. I never kept anything up. I used to quit activities; I’d quit people. But this is different.” Her second point is about the way her connection with Liz makes her feel. “I’m not sure I’ve felt quite this special or so important to someone before. Liz is one of my biggest supporters.” Liz shares an equally heartfelt description of what this relationship means to her in the circle. The two women squeeze hands and brush a few tears aside.
As the conversation continues, amidst a few more tears and some laughter, I am deeply humbled by the insight, presence, and commitment of everyone in the room. Repeatedly, both students and Elders share how surprised they’ve been by how much their Project Generations experience has touched them.
And, as one Elder shares, the lines between the generations just begin to blur… and what remains is really what it’s all about in the first place — the precious, genuine connection between two human souls.
Bravo, Project Generations, bravo…