Program pairs SU students and seniors to share experiences

Posted: May 11, 2013

The Winchester Star

Jessica Zeff (left) reads her letter to Ellie Shutt. Students shared what they had learned from their senior partners by writing letters.
Jean McDaniel (from left), DeyJah Spragley and Sasha Nurnberger take part in Shenandoah University’s Later Life Class.

Winchester — A group of Shenandoah University students recently expressed their appreciation to local seniors who had shared experiences with them.

For the second year, students in SU’s Later Life Class were paired with participants at the Winchester Active Living Center for activities held over several months, said psychology professor Scott King, who created the program.

The semester-long service learning project was designed to give the 16 participating students an opportunity to interact with and learn from older members of the community while providing companionship to them, he said.

“The students get to know older adults in the community whom they are not related to, and they get to see that aging is a multifaceted experience,” he said.

The project, which started in February, ended April 30 when the students brought personal letters to their partners, he said. Not all of the seniors were present for the presentation.

The letters, which also acted as a final paper for the class, served several purposes. In them, the students shared what they had learned from their partners, but they also related the program to topics dealing with aging that the students studied in class, King said.

The students were asked to offer easy-to-digest suggestions to incorporate the class materials into the seniors’ lives based on their experiences and situations, he said.

The group also presented a check for $760, to be donated to the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging. The students raised the money by holding a car wash, bake sale and restaurant “spirit nights” in the community.

King started the project to give students a better picture of what aging can and should be like, he said. Too many young people think seniors “all live in nursing homes or stay at home and don’t do anything.” At the center, they met seniors who are out and about and active in the community.

The program is a wonderful opportunity for the seniors and students, said Cindy Palmer, SAAA’s interim president and chief executive officer. Leaders hope that each walks away with greater knowledge and a better understanding of someone at a completely different stage in life.

She particularly liked the idea of the letters and hopes the seniors will share them with other family members, particularly their children.

“Sometimes they will say things their kids don’t even know,” she said. “It is a wealth of knowledge.”

In her letter, Sasha Nurnberger, 22, praised her partner Lewis Holmes, who wasn’t present, for his strong work ethic. She said he often mentioned the importance of getting involved and doing things in the community.

He also talked a great deal about his late wife and “how important it is to value your relationship and your marriage,” said Nurnberger, a senior psychology major.

“I really enjoyed the information I got from Lewis and the lessons I learned from him,” she said.

Ashley Stewart, 21, wrote about aging and what can be done to lessen its effects in her letter to partner Dorothy Scully, 91, of Frederick County. The letter was “very glowing,” Scully said.

“She was a charming young lady. It was so nice to talk to a young person who understood what older people have to go through,” she said.

Stewart in turn appreciated Scully’s positive outlook on life. She took away from the encounters how important that attitude can be to the quality of life as people age.

“She can crack a joke at anything, and if you can do that, you are doing pretty good,” said Stewart, a senior kinesiology major.

The letters were the concluding stage in the project, King said. The students came to the Active Living Center six times over the course of several weeks.

At first, they played ice-breaker games to introduce the two groups and put them more at ease, he said. Then they were placed in pairs, so students could begin to interview them and draw them out.

The one-on-one time with the students made the seniors feel special, knowing that someone wanted to hear about them and their life, said Kathy Neff, director of the Active Living Center. They love to talk about their likes and dislikes, families and accomplishments, she said.

“I saw the students asking questions and seniors answering, smiling and laughing, and sharing their thoughts and feelings,” Neff said.

Jean McDaniel, 86, of Winchester said spending time with her partner DeyJah Spragley “makes me feel young.” They mostly talked about McDaniel’s youth and things she remembered.

“She just had a pleasant way about her. When she asked you something, all you had to do was look at her and it was all coming back,” McDaniel said.

So many negative comments are made about today’s youth, but some really good ones can be found, and Spragley is one of them, McDaniel said.

“If I had a daughter, I would have liked for her to be just like DeyJah.”

— Contact Laura McFarland