Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Members of the “silent generation” are typically characterised by their discipline, gratitude and appreciation of life’s simplicities.

Attending school in the 1930s and ’40s, ink wells lined their wooden desks, and spinning tops were often the toys of choice.

It's a far cry from the experiences of gen Z, the youth attending school today, who learn using devices and have established a reputation for their multi-tasking abilities and environmental conscience. Yet despite the two generations' apparent differences, which are not confined to age, a nursing home in New Lambton has done a remarkable job in bridging the divide.

For years St John's Villa has been blending the generations with its activity sessions. Its residents eagerly look forward to weekly visits from students attending nearby schools including St Columba's Primary School, Adamstown, St Therese’s Primary School, New Lambton, and St Pius X High School, Adamstown.

St John's Villa activities co-ordinator Deb Cornell says she has witnessed the improved health and wellbeing of residents who take part in the activities, which promote intergenerational contact.

"The students' visits assist our residents in restoring connection and reminding them of the many skills and abilities they possess," Ms Cornell said.

"Even hours after the students have gone for the day, you can see our residents smiling as they recall memories from their childhood, which are triggered by the visits."

The concept of young and elderly mixing socially is nothing new. In years gone by it was not uncommon for homes to have three or four generations living under the one roof. However, as our social fabric continues to evolve, the tendency for immediate family members to live distances apart has increased, and consequently there are often missed opportunities for children to bond with their seniors as they once would have.

St Columba’s Primary School Religious Education co-ordinator Lisa Matzanke said visits to St John’s Villa provide students with an opportunity to live out their school's Mercy values in the community including compassion, justice, hospitality and respect.

"Having the opportunity to interact with the residents has enhanced our students' appreciation of the elderly,” Ms Matzanke said. “Many hadn't been to a nursing home before, and the experience builds their confidence."

The activities through which St John's Villa residents bond with students vary, but have included breeding quolls in an incubator, planting succulent gardens and caring for guinea pigs. Interviews for a short story collection have taken place, as have painting portraits of each other and answering a multitude of questions in a scavenger hunt with a twist, which was great for encouraging conversation and sharing of experiences between the two generations.

"Students get to hear some extraordinary stories from the residents about their experiences, which are so far removed from their own life," Ms Matzanke said.

"It's beautiful to watch the students and residents connect, and I'm so proud of the patience, respect and compassion that the children show." 

The connection between the two parties doesn't end at the visits, with many of the students coming up with ideas for other experiences they can share.

"Last year, our students asked to make the residents personalised Christmas cards that they could gift them when they went to listen to carols together. Now, we’re on to establishing pen pals," Ms Matzanke said. "The friendships they are forming are genuine and heart-warming."

It's not only students, teachers and nursing home staff have noticed the benefits of the program.

Sharon Cashen, whose mother is a resident at St John's Villa, recently wrote a letter to St Columba's Primary School in which she said: "Thank you for taking your beautiful children to St John's Villa today. The visit by your staff and students brought a tear to my mother's eye and a huge smile to her face as she was telling me about it this evening.

"We can't thank you enough for teaching your students to care for the elderly. Kindness makes a huge difference in this world, and these children have it in spades."

Building on the success of the program, residents have started making reciprocal visits to schools. They recently watched a play at St Therese’s Primary School and took part in an afternoon of line dancing with students at St Columba's Primary School. All had a ball.

"The program goes to show that friendships really can transcend age," Ms Cornell said. "We've all got something we can learn from and share with each other."

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Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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