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A Place for Mom

2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Jennifer Tu

Caitlin Burm
By Caitlin BurmMay 2, 2014

A Place for Mom is proud to announce the finalists of our annual $1,000 scholarship for the advancement in the field of gerontology. The finalists will be narrowed down to five winners to be awarded with a financial donation. Applicants were required to write a compelling essay about senior care innovation in preparing for America’s “Silver Tsunami” of aging Baby Boomers.

2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Jennifer Tu

Congratulations to Jennifer Tu, 2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist! Read Jennifer’s essay below and comment with why you feel she deserves to be one of the five scholarship award recipients.

Jennifer’s Essay

“I may forget your name. I may forget what you look like. But I’ll never forget what you mean to me.” This quote from a ninety-year-old woman, whom I’ve visited every weekend through the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB), reminds me of the gravity of not only the neurologic disease but also the social isolation that debilitate millions of people in nursing homes. From my personal experiences working in the nursing homes of New Orleans and Boston, I believe that there is a feasible, effective way to improve the quality of life of the ever-expanding elderly population in our country. My proposed social innovation builds on existing programs, such as A Place for Mom, by integrating high school youth with the elderly for intergenerational interaction. Specifically, I propose early exposure of high school students to nursing home communities as a productive solution that mutually benefits both parties. As teens learn to communicate with people who are multiple generations their senior, such intergenerational interaction exceeds what could be found in the classroom or on Google. While many college organizations exist to help elderly communities, I believe that young people need to experience this earlier. Furthermore, the high school demographic is not only more grounded in the local community but also highly flexible in academic and extracurricular interests.

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Intergenerational interaction can address many pressing concerns of the “Silver Tsunami.” Seniors increasingly lack a sense of belonging, are disengaged from others, and have shrinking numbers of fulfilling relationships as they deal with losing loved ones over time. In nursing homes and hospices, the only human touch that many receive is to force them to do something, whether to take a pill, eat their meal, get a shot, or move out of a chair. When I say goodbye to my Alzheimer’s Buddy every week, I have learned to avoid using “have a great week” to wish her well, because she would respond with a despondent sigh. Without a sense of belonging or value from another person, it is not surprising that social isolation has been statistically linked with depression, dementia, and increased risk for falls, re-hospitalization, and even all-cause mortality. In the face of these grim consequences, all is not lost. Expedient, costeffective, and mutually beneficial partnerships between senior care programs and youth organizations present a positive opportunity for preventing social isolation and preparing for America’s “Silver Tsunami.”

Currently, I serve as co-director of two college organizations with similar missions: Harvard-Radcliffe’s Music in Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET, at www.hcs.harvard.edu/mihnuet/), which brings undergraduate performers to nursing homes in Boston every weekend, and the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB, at www.alzbuddies.weebly.com), which matches college students with Alzheimer’s patients at a local hospice on an individual basis for weekly visits. Each organization has its unique strengths. HCAB specializes in matching college students with Alzheimer’s patients at a local hospice on an individual basis for weekly visits. As a volunteer, I can testify to the longitudinal relationships that we build between Buddies, the emotional investment both parties make, and the lessons that students learn about dealing with loss. On the other hand, MIHNUET works on a broader scale by bringing undergraduate musicians to more than twelve senior care sites every weekend. A recent post on the MIHNUET blog by a hospital recreational therapist reads, “They brought life to the room and helped our patients and family members relax, forget their surroundings and enjoy an hour of live music. The room was packed and you could hear their voices filling the halls with lyrics to everyone’s favorite songs.” These two programs offer exemplary models for facilitating intergenerational interaction.

By combining both “vertical” integration through the in-depth relationships of HCAB and “horizontal” integration through the breadth of connections of MIHNUET, I envision a “diagonal” model for intergenerational programs that can be implemented by organizations at an earlier age. In high school, I started Generation to Generations (GEN2GENS, at www.gen2gens.weebly.com), a program that taps into something most people take for granted. Rather than view the growing elderly population as a burden in today’s economy, we view elders as a treasure trove of wisdom that can be passed on to young adults and improve their outcomes. The interaction between older and younger generations not only empowers the elderly to impact youth, but also provides additional opportunities to complete their legacies, and in the process, find renewed purpose. Imagine high school jazz ensembles, cheerleading squads, and chamber musicians going all out, sharing their talents in nursing homes. Now, imagine nursing home residents giving feedback and sharing life stories. Entering its third year in New Orleans, GEN2GENS makes this reality. Once my peers saw how much the elderly loved to see them, they engaged in learning that can’t be replicated in the classroom. The GEN2GENS team at my high school has continued for three years, organizing year-round talent shows, conversational visits, and an annual Generations Festival at several local nursing homes.

By tapping into the diversity and flexibility of high school students’ interests and talents, programs for intergenerational integration can both address the immediate needs of America’s elderly and provide youth with personal experiences in service and advocacy and generate awareness of growing concerns in the aging population. Thus, meaningful relationships on a local scale can provide a starting point for national or even global action, providing a solid foundation for elderly care in the future. To achieve this vision, I plan to not only pursue a career in geriatric medicine but also expand GEN2GENS to cities across the country, organizing youth to become active caretakers and advocates for the elderly.

View and read all of the 2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship finalists and congratulate them on making it closer to the scholarship prize.

Did Jennifer’s essay inspire you? Don’t forget to share your thoughts below.

Caitlin Burm
Caitlin Burm
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