“I may forget your name. I may forget what you look like. But I’ll never forget what you mean to me.”
This quote from Basya, whom Jennifer has visited every weekend through the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB), reminds her of the gravity of the social isolation that affects the aging population worldwide. From personal experiences volunteering in the nursing homes of New Orleans and Boston, she believes that there is a feasible, effective way to improve the quality of life of the ever-expanding elderly population. As dementia and associated issues are increasingly medicalized, social innovation can build on existing programs through intergenerational interaction.
Starting Generation to Generations (GEN2GENS, at www.gen2gens.org), with the support of the Bezos Scholars Program @ the Aspen Institute, and facilitating collaboration between New Orleans high schools and long-term care facilities was Jennifer’s first intergenerational initiative. Imagine jazz ensembles, cheerleading squads, and chamber musicians going all out, sharing their talents in nursing homes. Now, imagine nursing home residents giving feedback and sharing life stories. Entering its fourth year in New Orleans, GEN2GENS makes this reality. Once her peers saw how much the elderly loved to see them, they engaged in learning that can’t be replicated in the classroom. The GEN2GENS team continues to organize year-round talent shows, conversational visits, and an annual Generations Festival at several local nursing homes.
Serving as co-director of two college organizations has allowed Jennifer to explore new ways of connecting people of different backgrounds and generations. Harvard-Radcliffe Music in Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET, at www.hcs.harvard.edu/mihnuet/) brings undergraduate performers to more than twelve nursing homes in Boston. The Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB, at www.alzbuddies.weebly.com matches college students with Alzheimer’s patients at a local hospice on an individual basis for weekly visits. Jennifer has taken part in innovating each of these programs. For instance, since its establishment in 1994, MIHNUET worked broadly, recruiting students who were available to visit a different site every weekend. Implementing my experiences as a Summer Director of MIHNUET in 2014, the team has reformed the program to foster long-term relationships between volunteers and sites. By organizing “resident teams,” each of which is designated a single site to visit regularly, volunteers can now continually reflect, improve their performances, and learn from the wise individuals they serve. The quality of the program has improved; a recreational therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center recently posted on the MIHNUET blog (www.mihnuet.tumblr.com), “They brought life to the room and helped our patients and family members relax, forget their surroundings and enjoy an hour of live music. The room was packed and you could hear their voices filling the halls with lyrics to everyone’s favorite songs.”
HCAB also had its share of innovation. In addition to expanding to thirty new members each semester, the directors’ team took part in conducting a research study to quantify the program’s clinical effects. The project, “Intergenerational intervention for neuropsychiatric symptoms and community involvement in advanced dementia residents,” was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this past summer. As the team, including Jennifer, interprets the data, no matter what the statistical significance, they continue to focus on the patients who have taught them so much. One woman summed up her feelings by saying at a research interview, “your smile, the way you talk, having you here is much better than a pill.”
By combining both “horizontal” integration through the breadth of talents of MIHNUET and “vertical” integration through the in-depth relationships of HCAB, a “diagonal” model for intergenerational programs can tap into the diversity and flexibility of students’ interests and talents. With this in mind, Jennifer is currently working with Dancing to Heal, Science-Theatre @ Harvard College (ST@HC), and the Global Health Learning Incubator to initiate Creations for Generations (C4G), an interdisciplinary project to give people a voice and bring unheard stories to life. A pilot this past summer revealed many insights, and the team is currently conducting more interviews and research to improve their model. Such programs for intergenerational integration can both address the immediate social needs of America’s elderly and ill and provide youth with personal experiences in service and advocacy, generating awareness of growing concerns in the aging population.
Jennifer is currently a junior at Harvard University studying Neurobiology with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. She hopes to pursue a career in geriatric medicine and continue initiatives using music and service.