In Florida, Bridging Generational Divides
Updated: Nov 19, 2019
By Katelyn Newman
In an age of "OK, boomer" and other generational rifts, high school students in Collier County, Florida, are working to bridge divides with their elders.
Launched in April 2018, the Visiting Teens club at Barron Collier High School in Naples typically involves between 10 and 15 students and an adult chaperone carpooling to The Carlisle Naples retirement community to spend time with residents there.
The purpose: to connect with and learn from senior citizens, says Olivia Cederquist, the group's 17-year-old founder.
"Naples, Florida, is an area that's very popular for seniors, and there's such a disconnect between the generations," Cederquist says. "We see stigmas between each, and I wanted to do something to fix that, to make generations live together and learn of their shared common interests."
Cederquist says she was inspired to start the group by her own close relationship with her great-grandmother, who passed away in 2011. "We were super connected, so this filled that hole as well," she says.
Since its start, Visiting Teens has grown to include about 70 students from Barron Collier and has expanded to nearby Gulf Coast High School, where it has more than 100 members who also visit The Carlisle Naples. The club hopes to begin trips to other senior communities in the area in the near future.
Three other schools in Collier County – The Community School of Naples, The Village School of Naples and Seacrest Country Day School – are forming their own Visiting Teens chapters as well, and one of Cederquist's friends who recently moved to Manhattan Beach, California, is working to build a group at her school.
Visits by the Barron Collier group occur about once a month after school or on Saturdays, and have proven to be mutually beneficial, Cederquist says.
"A lot of the seniors tell us they have no families, and their days consist of going down to get food, then back to their rooms and being alone. It's a great way to have people talk to them." Students, she says, benefit by gaining wisdom from people older than them who are not their teachers or parents.
Mary Beth Baxter, assistant executive director at The Carlisle Naples, says she enjoys observing the interactions and connections being made between the residents and the students.
"It's neat to watch the visits. They come in here and somebody who never plays a game that other residents don't know, (but) the teens may know it – to do that, or just help them with a puzzle or help them read a book," Baxter says. "It's just that interaction."
The companionship is especially helpful for those who may be visually impaired, or who perhaps can't move their bingo chips themselves, Baxter says. The seniors also get very excited to ask questions about their cellphones.
"It's just something really extra special in knowing that these teens come out here and they're doing something where, yeah, they could go out and do something totally different. But to come and spend some time here with our residents, it's just – I don't have the words for it," Baxter says. "It's so meaningful, and it makes a huge impact on our residents."
That impact can go beyond basic tech advice or a new bingo partner. More than a third of U.S. adults over 45 – nearly 48 million – are lonely, according to a 2018 report from the AARP Foundation. Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to a higher risk of developing a variety of mental and physical health issues, including heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease and death, according to the National Institute on Aging.
"People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk," the institute says, while those who engage in meaningful activities with others "tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose."
At The Carlisle Naples, Cederquist says the number of seniors who participate varies each visit, but has continued to grow since the program started.
"At first, only a few senior citizens were participating, but more seniors are coming as they've learned about what we're doing, bringing it closer to a similar ratio of students and seniors," Cederquist says.
To become a volunteer with Visiting Teens, students have to go through a 30-minute information session on topics like what clothing they should wear at the community, what to discuss and what topics shouldn't be brought up with their older counterparts, says Johanna Haueter, a Spanish teacher at Barron Collier High School and the school's sponsor of the club.
Haueter attends each of the visits with the students. She says she agreed to sponsor the group because she knew Cederquist was dedicated to pulling it off.
"I thought it was a great idea," Haueter says.
Madison Sailakkham, a 10th-grader at Barron Collier, says she joined the group at the beginning of her freshman year in part for the opportunity to expand her understanding of "things that have happened in the past and what seniors think now."
"I usually spend time around people my age, and we think similar things, so I think it's really good and beneficial for someone my age to see how others see certain topics," says Sailakkham, 15.
Robert Roa, another 10th-grader at Barron Collier who joined around the same time as Sailakkham, says he was looking for a club where he could help others, and has found more than that in his visits with the seniors.
"They're fun," he says. "Some people might think they're just old people, but they're really nice. We read them magazines, play games with them, play Wii Sports with them – it's the best."
Roa, 15, says students have made friends with all of the older adults who participate in the program, recalling one woman in particular, Grace, who they love playing Scrabble with and who jokes around with the students.
"A lot of them are very competitive," he says.
A 12th-grader, Cederquist says she's working to pass the leadership baton to a younger student before she graduates. But she hopes to "carry on the group at whatever college I ultimately go to," and that the program will continue to start up in other schools.
"I think one day it could be in every school nationally, not just in our area," she says.
U.S. News NOVEMBER 2019