This January, Jewish Family Service launched a new intergenerational program for teens and older adults to connect through monthly telephone or video chats. With the pandemic increasing the social isolation that many older adults already feel, JFS felt the time was right to launch this new initiative. The pilot program is called Better Together, and after only a few months, it has already been so successful that next year’s cohort is being planned.
Five local high school juniors were paired with five older adults from the Lehigh Valley Jewish community. The goal of the program is not only to forge friendships across the generations, but also to preserve memories. Each student is given questions to ask about a different topic each month, and after their telephone visit, they write up their partner’s responses. At the end of the year-long program, the teens will present their older adult buddy with a memoir all about them, which they can pass down to their family members to preserve stories from their lifetime.
“The program has gone so well. The feedback is extremely positive from both sides,” said Carol Wilson, program manager and community liaison for older adults for JFS. “They’ve settled into it nicely, and they have plenty to talk about.”
While it is suggested that calls last from 30 to 40 minutes, some teens find themselves on the phone for an hour or more.
“We’ll talk for another 20 minutes just about life,” said Jared Sussman, a junior from Parkland High School who said that he has fallen in love with the program. “We’re always excited to talk. The stories he tells are really cool, definitely. I think the best part, honestly, is getting to talk to him and seeing life from an older person’s perspective. He tells me stories from when he was in high school. He’s definitely teaching me a few things.”
Rachel Marcus, a junior at Easton Area High School, agrees.
“I really love the special connection. I never really thought I could have a connection with someone way out of my age range, but it’s really just opened my eyes to seeing different types of people. I’ve loved getting to know her. It’s crazy how much I enjoy talking to her,” she said.
There is hope that an in-person meet-up may be able to take place later in the year if COVID-19 restrictions are eased to give the teens and older adults the chance to meet each other face-to-face after forging such strong bonds over the phone.
The Better Together program is truly a win-win-win situation. The students have a meaningful, long-term community service project on their college application and can receive a recommendation letter from JFS staff. But, more importantly, the older adults can feel a little more connected to the community, and ties are made l’dor v’dor.
Lasting friendships are being formed through Better Together, like the one between Emmaus junior Izzy Kun and her partner.
“I’ve had long conversations with my partner. Sometimes I call just to check in to say hi,” said Izzy. “We really, really hit it off and connected. I consider it a friendship now. It’s really nice. We mesh really well. My favorite part of it is probably just hearing all of my partner’s stories and their great memories and all these amazing things about their life. I wish someone had done this with my grandparents, who I can no longer ask these questions to. I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and it’s such an amazing program, and hopefully we’ll all be able to be together soon.”
If you are interested in participating in a future Better Together cohort, contact Carol Wilson at email@example.com or 610-821-8722.