American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead noted that “Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation." Dayna Starks, a senior with a double major in psychology and gerontology, has launched a project intended to bring Niagara University students and older adults living in long-term care or assisted living facilities in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., together through letters.
Starks, the teaching and research assistant in the university’s gerontology program, first learned about the idea of an intergenerational pen pal program from Dr. Susan Mason, professor of psychology and coordinator of Niagara’s gerontology program. She immediately thought that a “gen-pal” program would work well with the people living at St. Ann’s Community, a senior housing and health services provider where she had worked for several years. When she suggested the idea to the recreational therapy staff there, they loved it, she said.
Seven NU students currently correspond with seven residents of St. Ann’s Community each month. Using a thematic prompt—February’s was “Something You Love”—students and residents exchange letters that have discussed everything from a favorite food to life lessons learned.
These intergenerational friendships between older and younger people positively impact both populations and can foster understanding mutual affect between the groups, and the connections forged during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the prevalence of social isolation has increased, have been especially important. Starks noted that both the elders and the students have benefited from their relationship.
“This program has turned out to be something the participants look forward to each month,” she said. “I have watched before my eyes how these friendships between older and young adults, which isn’t always so common, blossomed. Watching both parties become a support system for each other—encouraging, relating to, and empathizing—goes to show that friendships can be fostered between two people at all ages!”