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Connecting Generations at the Senior Center

Students and seniors shared stories on subjects as diverse as transgender identity to photo sharing.

There was a younger crowd on hand at the Neighborhood House Senior Center on June 13, when a high school class from the Oregon Episcopal School (OES) joined Senior Center members for a history discussion. OES holds a class each year on Contemporary American Issues: Race, Class and Gender that culminates with living history – a cross-generational discussion at the Neighborhood House Senior Center.

Students spent the semester exploring issues of race, gender and class with a contemporary lens, including a unit on how the media affect and reflect those issues. The best way to view modern issues is through a historical lens, according to OES History and Social Studies Department Chair Stephanie Portman, who teaches the class. And what better way to experience that lens first-hand than interacting with people who lived in different eras. In this case, members of the Neighborhood House Senior Center.

On the last day of school, 11th graders from the class met their older counterparts to talk, exchange stories and ask questions of each other.

The two groups have been meeting annually for several years in connection with the OES class, but this was the first time they’ve been able to meet in person since the pandemic shut-downs moved everything to Zoom.

The OES class included a unit about senior isolation and the importance of maintaining a sense of community for senior health. “One way we can help with that is to honor the experience of senior adults with an opportunity to lift their voices with high school student interaction,” Portman said.

Many people struggled with a lack of social connection before the pandemic and continue to do so afterward. The isolation was especially hard on senior populations, affecting both mental and physical health. Places like the Neighborhood House Senior Center are critical to senior health by creating connections with peers, and also with young people from OES. 

“It’s important for the students to hear the Seniors’ wisdom and experience on topics like dating, jobs, and what school was like for them growing up,” Portman said.

Students and seniors gathered in small groups of 4 or 5 and took turns asking questions and sharing stories. The students started off the questions, but there was plenty of back and forth. “It usually turns out that the members here ask more questions about the young peoples’ experience,” according to Carol Vaughn, the Senior Center Program Manager.

Some of the student questions included: Did you play a sport? What expectations were there for young women when you were our age? Did you have racial diversity at your school?

Barbara Murray brought photos from her childhood to share, which started a conversation about the move to digital photos. Scarlett Jacobson was fascinated by the old photos and lamented the move to digital images. “If you lose your phone or get a new one, you could lose everything. So many memories – gone in a flash.”

The class made Scarlett realize “stories aren’t valued enough.” Now she makes more of an effort to talk with her grandparents and listen to their stories, an outcome Portman hoped for with the history class.

Another group talked about gender and politics. One woman shared that her grandchild is transgender and how that was a series of learning moments for her. OES student Tiago Moreno talked about the current state of political polarization, particularly since the 2016 election, and lamented “this is all our generation has ever known.”

A group of four at another table had a lengthy discussion about women’s rights that started with Morgan Matthews’ question: “Do you feel like people were held back by not being encouraged to go to college?”

“Yes indeed, women in particular,” was the answer. “Back then we took aptitude tests to find out what our skills were, where our interests should lead us. But for women, the only choices were nursing, teaching, or being a secretary. They asked all those questions and yet those were the only career choices. My test results showed a strong interest in medicine and everyone told me I should be a nurse. But my uncle was a doctor and I wanted to be like him. It was all on us to explore other options and how to make it happen.” She went on to graduate medical school and became a pediatrician, but recognized that her family had the means to support that dream. “Economics played a huge role in my opportunities, then as now.”

“It’s really nice that folks were willing to come talk with our students,” Portman said. But in the end, it was obvious everyone benefited from the shared conversations.

For ideas on multi-generational questions to ask in your family, read this article from Fortune magazine.