A strange thing is happening this afternoon at the East River Senior Center in East Harlem. Instead of elderly people walking slowly through the door, the place is filling up with lively teens. Gloria Zelaya, coordinator of an intergenerational program run by the Union Settlement Association Services for Older Adults, anxiously awaits their arrival. “What the kids do,” she explains, “is serve home-bound seniors.”
If it sounds simple, that’s because in a lot of ways it is. Basically, the senior center serves as an after-school home-base where the high schoolers can mix, mingle, drop off their bags and make phone calls. Then, in pairs, usually a boy and a girl, they hit the streets and ring the doorbells of community elders with hopes of provid-ing some company and, more likely, some help.
In many other ways, though, the work these young people do is not simple at all. Although the trips to the supermarket are easy enough, the mental exercise of bonding with “old people” can be quite a challenge. “I find myself thinking about how lonely they get,” admits Alexander, a 16-year-old. “I would never want to be that lonely.”
In fact, many teens find that, through the program, initial feelings of ambivalence about the plight of the elderly, their history and current realities are slowly transformed into more humble feelings of respect and admiration. “You have to call them first and give them time,” says another teen explaining the process of connecting with a senior, “And talking over the phone is the most difficult thing. They don’t know you, you don’t know them. Basically you don’t talk about their past, you just explain what the program is about and cover the basic stuff, From there we start talking about their life, but really we don’t have to ask that many questions because they take it from there.”
Zelaya says the program has been working well since last October and serves as a model for intergenerational relationship-building. The program works in collaboration with Elders Share the Arts, a Brooklyn-based group that creates inter-generational partnerships through expressive arts like drama and dance. ESA pro-vides “legacy work” workshops for the
Union Settlement program, says Zelaya, and they have come in handy breaking the ice between teens and seniors. One example of the legacy work is the family trees the teens and seniors of the Union Settlement Intergenerational Program complete and share. “[Through them] some people find out fascinating things. Some do really have interesting histories,” says the director.
Seventy-five year old Helen lodge is no exception. “I’m a native New Yorker,” she says. “But my parents were born in St. Thomas. I graduated [high school] in ‘37. I did factory assembly work, work for the Amalgamated Union. Lets see, that was, oh, 41.” Hodge has a remarkable memory. She can tell you the dates of birth and death of all 12 of her siblings, her parents’ anniversary date in 1908, and other significant events in her life. For her, constructing a family tree was no problem.
“Miss Hodge is, like, real nice,” says Adrianna on the cold walk to Hodge’s apartment building on East 110th Street. Adrianna and Charles have been visiting Hodge regularly for weeks now. The routine is basic: Get to the Lehman Village Houses. Wait 10 minutes for the one working elevator to arrive. Ring Miss Hodge’s bell. Smile, be nice. Walk her to the local market. Bring her and her stuff back home.
This simple routine makes all the difference to Hodge, who is severely arthritic in her left hand and who also suffers from what she calls “infantile paralysis”–that is, polio. “I had something of a stroke when I was two. My hands shake. I don’t baby myself, though. When you see me baby myself, you know I don’t feel good,” she insists.
The most surprising element of the intergenerational program is the bonding many participants experience around common interests. “Being with one senior in particular felt like I was with my grand-father who passed away,” says Yadira, a 12th grader. He asked me what I wanted to be.
When I said a social worker, he said, ‘Social worker? I used to be a social worker for 28 years.’ I found that we had a lot in common. He’s a Gemini, me too. It’s funny.”
At the senior center, Zalaya challenges the young people to discuss changes they have made in their lives as a result of their experiences working with the elderly. “When you see elderly people in the morning, like on the train, you have a lot more patience,” says Alexander. “One time these elderly women were in front of me and they were moving so slow, they made me miss the train. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, man, would you move? You made me miss the train.’ You just look at it like, they missed the train also.
“I’d stereotyped old people as slow. Many of them are slow. But for good reason–it’s natural for them to be like that. Man, I’m gonna be old one day, too.”