Kids and seniors bridge the age gap with games

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School 6th-grader Heath Odell and a handful of his classmates darted to the Elderly Services Inc. music room last Friday morning, where they each picked an elderly partner whom they led to the center of the welcoming space.
While musician Judd Markowski squeezed out a lively tune on his accordion, the children tenderly clasped their partners’ hands and gently guided them in dance while seniors too frail to join in beamed from chairs along the sideline.
For a few precious minutes, the elderly dancers were young again, back at a school dance, unshackled from walkers and canes.
“It’s about helping them feel like they’re wanted, helping them play games they may not get to play at home,” a smiling Odell said of the experience.
This was but one of many touching inter-generational scenes that played out at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elderly Services in Middlebury on April 12, when 22 Mary Hogan students brightened the lives of dozens of elderly participants in the Project Independence program, sometimes called PI. The exchange, initiated four years ago by former Mary Hogan teacher Cathy Byers, unites Mary Hogan students with PI participants for an hour during two Fridays each month.
MIDDLEBURY 83-YEAR-OLD Gerry DeGray takes a breath while schooling Mary Hogan Elementary sixth-grader Ian Sinclair at Elderly Services on April 12. DeGray said he looks forward to seeing and playing with the young students and believes they learn from each other.
Independent photo/Steve James
Mary Hogan Grade 6 educator Deb Levesque said her students probably derive as much benefit from the exchange as their older friends. It’s become a social-emotional learning experience for her students.
“If there’s one thing that’s increasingly lacking in our society, it’s the opportunity for humans to connect on different levels,” Levesque said. “More and more, (the children) are separated from older relatives that could provide them with those experiences and knowledge. So they get that here. They warm up to who these people are and what they can offer, in terms of sharing their own backgrounds in the lifetime they grew up in. Knowing that they’re adding to someone’s life, and at the same time receiving an emotional benefit.”
When Byers first suggested bringing kids to Project Independence, Elderly Services Assistant Director Kristin Bolton initially feared mixing 25 children with around 60 seniors might be logistically problematic. But sound planning took care of that worry.
“(Organizers) created a structure where they could have interaction in small groups, playing cards, games, dancing and just having a good time,” Bolton said.
The seniors didn’t need any convincing; they relished the prospect of spending time with local kids, little dynamos that could make them feel younger just by looking at them.
The first crop of children didn’t really know what to expect, but warmed to the idea almost immediately, Bolton recalled.
“The first time the kids came in, they didn’t know what to expect,” Bolton said. “Here were all these people in wheelchairs, needing oxygen and walkers… And then, within a couple months, it was ‘I want to play Scrabble with Hilda!’ They were fighting with who they wanted to be with.”
The experience proved particularly valuable for students who find it hard to excel in the traditional classroom setting.
“They might not be good at math, reading or behaving in a learning environment, but hanging out with older people was easy and fun, and they could just relax and be themselves,” Bolton said.
Levesque smiled as her students entered the center and quickly scattered to four distinct activity areas, where they would have a choice of either working with clay; playing (seated) indoor volleyball with a beach ball; listening and dancing to music; and playing board games, including Scrabble, checkers, cards and Jenga.
Elderly Services Activities Coordinator Ken Schoen — a driving force behind the Mary Hogan-PI exchange — sends Levesque a the menu of activities ahead of time. Levesque then apportions roughly a quarter of her 22 students to each activity. She and Schoen make sure adults and students rotate evenly among all four activities during the course of the year.
With the academic year almost over, the students have gotten to know their PI friends quite well. Young and old have become accustomed to each other and their favorite games, foods and any special needs.
Almost half of her students identify Project Independence as their favorite activity of the week, according to Levesque.
While Elderly Services officials appreciate any volunteer time folks can spare, they’re particularly grateful to those able to commit to a regular schedule. Mary Hogan students and seniors are able to build meaningful relationships during what Bolton referred to as “these twice-a-month deep dives.”
“The kids remember the older people, the older people remember the kids, and there’s this comfort level that develops,” Bolton said. “It’s a chance to connect.”
RICHARD THIBAULT, WHO takes part in Elderly Services’ Project Independent, dances with Subia Khan, one of the Mary Hogan students who visited the facility off Exchange Street on April 12 to bring some cheer to the seniors.
Independent photo/Steve James
It’s a connection built on warmth and respect. The children look upon the seniors as friends, but are also mindful of their longevity and physical frailties. Levesque and Schoen will let children know in advance if there are any PI participants with particular limitations.
“They treat them gently,” Bolton said. “They want to be careful not to hurt them, and they want to be kind to them.”
Some seniors might not have any grandchildren and thus feel especially drawn to the young visitors. Others might be lonely and thus emotionally buoyed to get the undivided attention of a young person — even if its for just 45 minutes every two weeks, to collaborate on a clay pot.
“They don’t get a chance to be around younger kids, and this gives them that,” Bolton said.
By the same token, students are drawn to their PI pals for a variety of reasons. The seniors are living history books. What child wouldn’t be mesmerized listening to a centenarian talk about traveling to their one-room schoolhouse on a horse-drawn sleigh?
The Mary Hogan kids weren’t due for another 15 minutes on this particular Friday, but Hilda Burnham, 85, of Cornwall, had already set up the Scrabble board on one of Elderly Services’ dining room tables.
Time for another vocabulary smack-down between the “mods” and the “pods.”
“They’re always a good challenge and they know their stuff,” Burnham said with a smile.
Her mom was a school teacher and Hilda has gotten a lot of practice playing Scrabble with her sisters. She hopes to pass the love of the game on to a new generation.
“I love the challenge of those kids; they’re all so pleasant and full of life,” Burnham said. “Scrabble is for everybody and not just for old folks.”
Pablo Rodriguez, 78, had nabbed a choice spot along the net of the beach ball volleyball court set up in one of the PI activity rooms. He visits PI three days a week, including Fridays, when the Mary Hogan students visit.
Rodriquez likes to stay active, in spite of deteriorating eyesight. He can see the beach ball, and is thus able to join in the fun.
“I like how they interact with us,” Rodriquez said of the Mary Hogan visitors. “You can feel the energy we have.”
Mary Hogan sixth-grader Sarah Benz is in her second year visiting seniors at PI. She has thoroughly enjoyed it. On this day, she’s working clay at a table of seniors and fellow students.
“It’s nice to connect with the elderly people,” Benz said. “They’re basically like your friends. It’s nice hearing stories about when they were younger.”
The meeting of the two generations, Benz said, allows students to branch out and socialize with a group they don’t usually spend a lot of time with.
Coincidentally, Benz’s own grandmother is a PI participant, though she’s not in the fold on this day.
“She gets really happy when she sees me,” Benz said of her grandma.
STUDENTS GAVIN JONES, left, and Cameron Litchfield-Farrar play Yahtzee with Edna Randall, right, and Margaret Hutchin the Mary Hogan Elementary School students’ regular visit seniors to Elderly Services in Middlebury.
Independent photo/Steve James
Student Caleb Bilodeau and several of his classmates were gleefully — but gently —batting the beach ball with Rodriguez.
Bilodeau said he loves helping his older friends and learning what he and they have in common.
“They still act like they’re around 30 years old,” he said with a smile.
Middlebury resident Gerry DeGray is 83, and what you’d call a checkers shark. He’s so enthusiastic about the game, it’s a wonder he doesn’t spike the board after each win. And he’s notched a lot of wins against his young challengers — so much so that they now sometimes show up in teams in an effort to take his crown.
“Now there’s two of them sitting there, plotting against me,” he said with a playful grin.
He acknowledged he can be beat. One student served him some humble pie earlier this year.
“The kid comes to me and says, ‘I beat you weeks ago,’” DeGray said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know, and you’re never going to let me forget it.’”
DeGray loves the children, and they love him.
“I look for them every week,” DeGray said. “I can’t wait for them to come.”
He’s impressed with how polite they are.
“They’re very well behaved, and thankful when you play with them,” DeGray said. “They treat me as an equal, and don’t look at me like I’m some relic.”
DeGray hopes the exchange has burst some unfortunate misconceptions about the elderly.
“They learn that us people aren’t in a mental home, or unfit to be around,” he said. “They learn that older people are still nice.”
The Mary Hogan-PI exchange has inspired some of the students to continue helping the elderly beyond their elementary school.
Among them is Cameron Litchfield-Farrar, now a Middlebury Union Middle School eighth-grader. He volunteers at PI a day a week throughout the school year.
“It’s like another family, hearing about their past; it’s a lot of fun here,” Litchfield-Farrar said of the PI participants.
He has no plans to stop volunteering at Elderly Services.
“I believe I’m going to keep coming here for years to come,” he said. “I definitely believe this will be my first job.”
Schoen marvels at Litchfield-Farrar’s dedication and the compassion he shows toward his elderly charges.
“He is just so good at what he does,” Schoen said of Litchfield-Farrar, who last year won the United Way of Addison County’s Youth Volunteer Award.
“He’s a budding social worker; a guy with a heart,” Schoen added. “We joke he’s going to become the CEO here.”
Elderly Services Executive Director Joanne Corbett is impressed with the impact the exchange is having on clients.
“The child, baby or adolescent, doesn’t have to do anything but stand there and be gawked at, and it brings lots of joy into the day,” Corbett said. “We’re very grateful that the local schools and child care centers have been so receptive to sending children over here. It’s difficult for a lot of our elderly people to get out and about in the world physically with their limitations, so Ken works hard bringing the world in here to them.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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