Building a Bridge Across Generations
When five first-year Bennington College students began their annual Field Work Term at Bennington Project Independence in January, they were not sure what to expect working at an adult day care facility.
“Before starting the job, I was not sure how I would converse with the people because of the generation gap and difference in views,” said Mrunal Khadke '22.
In some cases, the students came into the work with preconceived notions about elder care. “My general impression of the life of seniors in nursing care is that of quiet and leisure,” said Xuan Le '22. “That impression was far from what I saw at BPI. The residents are encouraged to participate in many social and creative activities.”
BPI, as Bennington Project Independence is commonly known, is a respected adult day care facility that has served Bennington and the surrounding area for 40 years. BPI specializes in providing care and services to approximately 100 older adults who cannot be at home alone during the day, or do not wish to be.
Bennington College approached BPI last year about collaborating on a project that would allow students to perform services for older adults while establishing personal connections with them.
The intergenerational connections program addressed the College’s commitment to experiential learning and College President Mariko Silver’s goal to forge stronger ties with the community. It also addressed BPI’s desire to offer meaningful care and programs designed to enhance the quality of life of its participants.
I realized that, beyond care and comfort, a need to be understood and to correspond is also an important part in the welfare of these older adults. Xuan Le '22
“Some of our elderly go home and they’re by themselves. They have nobody,” said Melissa Stemp, BPI’s Social Worker. “Having the opportunity to do something that you enjoy, that you find special with somebody who is giving you that attention you deserve and you need is important.”
The program took place during Bennington College’s annual Field Work Term. For seven weeks each January and February, students take part in immersive assignments with companies and organizations that are related to their field of study.
“Field Work Term is a fundamental part of a Bennington education,” said Faith McClellan, Bennington College’s Director of Field Work Term and Career Development. “These full-time assignments allow students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world work environments and complement their academic work with professional experiences.”
The College was supported in this effort by a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges and the AARP Foundation. The grant aided in covering student stipends and travel during the Field Work Term.
Each weekday of the term, Khadke and Le were joined by fellow Bennington students Albert Aleksanyan '22, Anh Mai Ly '22, and Kevin Munoz '22 at BPI’s environmentally friendly state of the art facility on the outskirts of Bennington.
Student assignments were tied to their course of study at Bennington. Khadke and Aleksanyan were artists in residence, focusing on dance/movement and visual art, respectively. Le served as the technology tutor, Munoz assisted with activity programs, and Ly was the social work assistant.
“Xuan was very helpful in researching answers to various technology challenges that we face such as migration to a newly developed website,” Webmaster Maureen Kelly said of Le’s work as technology tutor. “He gave many design suggestions, researched donation platforms and ways to share photos across the network.”
Ly worked with Stemp in assisting participants with various benefits issues and writing and reviewing care plans. “This part of my work is very meaningful as I love helping people and making them content,” said Ly, who also helped BPI participants balance their checkbooks and make phone calls to utilities.
“The participants trusted her,” Stemp said of Ly. “She showed compassion and caring, and a knowledge base that I did not expect from such a young student.”
Each of the students forged connections with participants through their work. In the early days of the program, there was a lot of one-on-one engagement as students became acclimated to their roles and to the new experience of working with older adults.
“As time went by, the students became more comfortable developing relationships with participants,” said Linda Wichlac, BPI’s Executive Director. By the second and third week, students started working more independently of the BPI staff and more directly with participants.
Munoz, Khadke, and Aleksanyan assisted in developing new activities and exercises for participants to help sharpen their cognitive skills and physical well-being.
One of the participants that Munoz worked with made a significant impression on him.
“I met an 85-year-old former writer and university professor who suffers from early stage dementia and impaired short-term memory,” said Munoz. “I encouraged him to talk about stories from his life.” Munoz noted that the man’s confidence has improved since he has been able to share his anecdotes and personal experiences.
Khadke engaged the participants in movement sessions that grew quite popular, including a form of Zumba that could be done from a chair. With Aleksanyan’s help, she also organized a talent show that allowed students and participants alike to showcase their artistic skills.
“Having Mrunal do stretching was a nice change from our regular exercises,” said participant Doris Cloutier. “It was really nice to have these young, smart people around. It really brightened my day.”
“Having that physical outlet helps reduce anxiety and stress, but it helps with our health as well,” added Stemp.
Aleksanyan helped develop group art projects that allowed participants to explore their creative side.
“Creating art is an important expressive outlet for BPI participants,” said Kaye Shaddock, BPI’s art therapist. “It encourages them to stretch themselves and embrace an artist's identity.”
Aleksanyan and the other Bennington students contributed to the artistic conversation, encouraging the participants to reflect on what inspired them artistically and try new approaches to their work.
“One of the participants remarked how neat it would be to display their work at Bennington College,” said Shaddock, who reached out to a friend at the College to propose an exhibition of participant work. “My heart just about burst open when the response was overwhelmingly positive and in support of the show.”
Wichlac and her team worked closely with the students to see that their assignments were both educational and satisfying.
“The goal was to keep people moving so that there were always new people to meet and new experiences to be had,” Wichlac said. “We also encouraged the students to share their life experiences.”
With all five students coming from different countries, the project became more than just intergenerational. It was also international and multicultural. Any language or cultural barriers one might imagine were easily overcome.
“All of the students were very friendly, and I enjoyed hearing about their life experiences being from different countries,” said participant Sue Ball. Many participants were also very curious about the students’ background. “We got to learn about their culture, their customs, foods, all that.”
Ly, who is Vietnamese, wondered if her own heritage might stir negative feelings among some participants.
“We do have some Vietnam War vets here, and for some of them that was a very traumatic experience in their lives,” said Wichlac. “[Ly] was sensitive to know how to approach that. We actually tried to encourage that kind of sharing because that can be healing for some of the vets to experience people in a different way than their memories.”
Ly was universally welcomed and answered many questions about her background and her country. She also made a close connection with a veteran whose friend was killed in Vietnam.
All of the students came away with a more informed view of adult care and lasting friendships and shared experiences with participants.
“I realized that, beyond care and comfort, a need to be understood and to correspond is also an important part in the welfare of these older adults,” Le said.
“Working for BPI taught me the complexity of offering eldercare services that are dignifying and respect and encourage the independence of the assisted,” added Munoz.
The end of the project was bittersweet. The students were eager to return to Bennington for the beginning of the spring term, but they were sad to see their experience at BPI come to an end. The same could be said of the participants.
“Some of our participants got really teary when they were saying goodbye to them,” Wichlac said. “I don’t think they anticipated how quickly people could become attached to them.”
Added participant Tiffany Cole, “They were very nice. I hope they come back.”
This spring, Bennington College is pleased to host Joyful Accomplishment, an exhibition of artwork by BPI participants, currently on view at the Barn Gallery outside the President’s office on Bennington College’s campus.
On April 5 from 1:00-3:00 pm, an opening event will be hosted for this exhibition. Both the opening event and the exhibition are open to the public.
By Richard Brownell, Development Writer