By Karen Bensen, Clinical Associate Professor, Graduate School of Social Work
Dinner and Dialogue was the brain child from our Intergenerational A Community Table event last April. Our intergenerational group created a series of meals and conversation at the retirement community where the elders in our group resided. About a dozen different members of the Graduate School of Social Work community (along with a few community members) participated with about 20 different members of the retirement community over three meals.
It was a simple idea that had significant impact for all participants. Many of the younger participants have limited contact with older adults in their lives except for their grandparents who may live far away. One of the older adults commented that her family doesn’t seem interested in stories about her life working at the State Capitol which she is very proud of. The younger participants were fascinated by her stories and it felt good to her to be seen for her accomplishments with fresh eyes and ears. Sometimes family becomes too familiar with an elder’s stories and stops listening, but a stranger’s ears allow for a fresh perspective on the familiar.
Many younger participants were quite surprised by the vibrant lives that these elders had lived and were living. One student said, “As a 23-year-old woman, it is easy to have a more myopic view of aging based upon how media and news sources negatively frame “senior citizens”, but my experience dining with the older adults who live in CVC has opened up my eyes to see the beauty and freedom that can be found in aging.” Another noted, “The event provided a unique perspective and insight about the joys, hopes and challenges experienced by aging Coloradans and provided a powerful illustration on healthy and successfully aging.” And yet another commented, “I think it is a great way to keep people’s biases in check and learn from the wisdom that the older generations have.” These biases can go both ways. The media isn’t always generous in how it portrays young adults either. Eating and conversing with young adults allowed the older participants the opportunity to get a fresh perspective on that generation as well as they heard stories about their educational pursuits, career dreams, and family life.
These older adults had fascinating careers in education (as teachers, administrators, principals and college presidents), politics, engineering, residential youth care, the CIA, the military, and the ministry. Their life stories were rich and colorful and in the telling of them, these elders were reminded again that their lives had purpose and meaning. It is developmentally essential for older adults to review their lives through storytelling in order to make sense of them and find peace in a life well lived.
These dinner and dialogue events provided an opportunity for those stories to land on a fresh pair of eyes and ears. There is no greater gift for our elders. Hearing about those fascinating lives and letting go of some biases to connect with their elders and see them for the vibrant individuals that they are was also a great gift for these young adults. Everyone was eager to continue the dinners and dialogues together!