Molly Davis, Marketing & Communications Coordinator and Civic Scholar, Class of 2020, loves spending time with her grandmother when she is home in Lexington, Tennessee. Molly and Willie Mae watch movies and listen to music together, and they talk about everything, from the most mundane to the most profound topics. Willie Mae shares stories from her past and has taught Molly about the importance of making others feel cared for and loved, no matter their age. “We talk a lot about the value of intergenerational connections,” Molly explained. “We’ve started to reflect on how our current experiences are similar in some ways. We are both in a phase of uncertainty about what comes next, and most of the time, we are surrounded by people close in age. Our senses of community can become surprisingly insular.”
Molly’s close bond with Willie Mae motivated a desire to start a group that would promote new intergenerational connections between WashU students and older adults in the St. Louis community. “During the spring 2018 semester, I met with staff during the Gephardt Institute’s weekly drop-in hours,” she shared. “They introduced me to like-minded student groups and outlined preliminary resources and steps to take if interested to start my own.”
Over the course of the summer, Molly quickly moved from conceptualization to partnership development. She reached out to Lutheran Senior Services (LSS), a not-for-profit organization with a variety of senior living communities in the Greater St. Louis area, central Missouri, and Illinois, including Life Plan Communities that offer a full continuum of living to affordable senior housing and in-home services. Molly was drawn to this organization after learning about its focus on intergenerational programming and other innovative approaches to care. Diane Sinclair, the LSS Volunteer Engagement Coordinator, was actively looking for volunteers at the time and welcomed the partnership. Together, they outlined a plan and timeline for implementation. Molly then moved to recruitment, informing her peers through social media and at WashU’s fall Activities Fair. Over 100 students signed up, and about 50 attended information sessions during the first week of classes.
In a matter of months, Molly’s vision has come to fruition as WU Adopt a Grandparent, a Student Union funded group with a dedicated executive team and faculty advisor. Molly serves as the group’s president. In addition to encouraging intergenerational connections through positive socialization and intentional relationship building, Adopt a Grandparent seeks to foster dialogue about aging in the WashU community. Brian Carpenter, professor of psychological and brain sciences, is the group’s faculty advisor. During the group’s training session, he presented on the intersectionality of identity and the aging process. He also spoke to the impact of terminology, such as the use of “older adult” versus “senior.”
Over 30 students have received training by LSS on best practices for working with older adults and HIPPA requirements and are now participating in weekly trips to an assisted living community in Richmond Heights where Adopt a Grandparent organizes events and facilitates individual and group activities with the residents. Next semester, the group will launch a new initiative in which students will be paired with residents of the community and maintain weekly communication with their resident partners through letters, phone calls, and emails. Students who are involved in other campus student groups can also partner with Adopt a Grandparent to host an event or showcase their talents. While students are not required to make a weekly commitment, Molly encourages them to come at least once a month if joining group visits.
Molly noted that the group is already evolving to fit the needs of the partner community and better fulfill its mission. During their first site visit, for example, Molly observed the excitement of residents as they received mail from family and friends. She saw this as an opportunity for students or residents who had less time or felt less comfortable with in-person visits to develop a personal connection. In the spring, the group will offer trainings on letter writing as another way to get involved. On visits, group activities have included trivia, Halloween pumpkin decorating, and making and tasting a spiced tea mix. WashU a cappella group After Dark is scheduled to perform for the residents, and Molly plans to partner with more student groups in the future in order to offer a wide variety of events and activities.
When asked about highlights of this semester’s visits, Molly noted that, “Over the course of the semester, the residents and students have gotten to know each other and built relationships. I’ve seen students and residents bond over shared taste in music, books, and television. We’ve found that, though we learn a lot from each other, we also have so much in common.” Molly emphasized that both LSS residents and WashU students benefit from their participation and exposure to different points of view. “Older adults have so many life experiences to share. At an uncertain time in our lives, they can provide a lot of wisdom and reassurance. They want to hear from students, as well. As students, the group provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of different walks of life while giving back in a meaningful way.”
Like Molly, Diane sees incredible value in the relationships between students and residents. “We have a student volunteer who plays piano every week for some of our residents,” she says. “She once told me that she sees them as her friends. They know each other and learn from each other. Many of our volunteer students talk about how they’re far away from their grandparents and miss them. The same is true for some of our residents – they miss their grandchildren! They value the relationship they’re able to build together.”
When asked how WU Adopt a Grandparent has changed her impression of community engagement, Molly emphasized that, “It has encouraged me to think about what it means to be fully engaged and present as a temporary resident and citizen of St. Louis.” Diane added that, “Together, we help each other grow and strengthen our communities.”
To get involved, contact Molly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in learning more about opportunities on campus, visit office hours in the Gephardt Institute suite (Danforth University Center 150) on Tuesdays, 3-5pm.