Montpelier Winter 1999
When Cecil Bradfield scans the lawns and walkways of JMU, he sees thousands of twentysomethings - JMU's traditional students, ending their teen years and eagerly entering the realm of official adulthood.
When he looks at the hundreds of elderhostel programs throughout the United States, he sees another type of student: established adults, retired, and just as eager to learn and contribute.
Unfortunately, the sociology professor sees them separated by the very experiences and perspectives that hold the potential for a mutually beneficial education.
To bridge the years between them, Bradfield drew on his own experiences as head of JMU's Aging and Family Studies Program and two years ago created the Intergenerational Internet Project. Offered through JMU's Gerontology Program and the Lifelong Learning Institute, the project seizes on a tool vital to today's society - computers - and promotes an exchange of ideas, experience and perspective between two generations that often limit their contact to holidays at the grandparents. Through the Internet project, Bradfield has begun to see an enthusiasm for what each generation can offer the other.
Take, for example, Sydney Nix, of Waynesboro, a retired DuPont research chemist. "I think most elders talk among themselves most of the time, and they miss the joy and enthusiasm of young people."
By reaching beyond that self-imposed peer group, "I think the vitality and the joy of living that most young people seem to have rub off on you."
JMU senior Jodi Navon has reached a similar conclusion. Her Internet partnership with Harrisonburg resident Joan Thiel was particularly valuable "because I learned from someone else besides my normal group. When you're on the college campus, the whole outside world is not a part of your life. You're just concerned with getting through your classes." The Internet project gave Navon the opportunity to talk with someone she otherwise would not have met, about topics she may not have taken time to consider.
And that's just what Bradfield had in mind. In developing the LLI, he wanted wanted to get the generations communicating and learning from each other.
The LLI, established in 1996 with a program of four courses, in many ways follows the traditional path of elderhostel programs throughout the nation by offering to senior citizens courses like world religions, colonial history, computers and wildflowers. But it veers off in its own direction by opening its courses, special programs and the Internet project to traditional university students as well. The results are an exchange of ideas and experiences between the generations and candid discussions about issues that affect all ages.
Bradfield believes that in our mobile, fast-paced society where extended families are often separated by huge distances, communication between the generations is more than just desirable. Communication, he says, is essential to counteract stereotypes easily drawn of seniors citizens as a selfish drag on society's decreasing resources and of an equally selfish Generation X actively pushing them aside.
As a professor in a position to teach both generations, he recognizes that these stereotypes are far from the truth. The young people he sees are dedicated and committed, and the older generation is healthier and more active than ever.
Interest in the LLI has mushroomed. Last year the program offered 11 courses and this year 19. Enrollment jumped from 98 students the first year to 266 last year and 315 this year. Last summer, Nancy Grembi was hired as the part-time director to manage the growing program.
In the spring of 1997, some LLI members volunteered to be paired with JMU undergraduates enrolled in the Social Gerontology 280 course for the Intergenerational Internet Project - a semester of dialogue via e-mail. The twist is this: the partners do not know each other, nor do they know anything about each other except what participants choose to share. The ground rules are simple: respectful, thoughtful communication via e-mail - period. Participants stretch beyond their comfort zone of peers and experiences, bridge that imaginary generation gap, and often find they have more in common than they had ever imagined.
Kristen Mein, a junior psychology major who participated in the Internet project during the fall of 1997, admits that she went into the project with ample anxiety - "both about communicating with someone I didn't know and communicating with a senior citizen" - and with plenty of preconceived notions about Sydney Nix, her partner. "I thought we'd see everything differently. What-ever I'd say, he was going to think the opposite."
Instead, Mein and Nix developed a cyberspace friendship that has continued beyond the end of the semester. The experience resulted in new career possibilities.
"If I hadn't done the e-mail project," Mein says, "even if I had done community service in say a hospital or nursing home setting, I really don't think I would have gotten interested in gerontology. Now my dream job would be to work in independent living - a retirement community - and be a psychologist there."
For Nix, "the experience brought home to me what I already felt; that if one finds a new acquaintance and uses a positive, open attitude, good rapport can be had."
Mein's change of career considerations came in part by getting beyond what Bradfield calls the "95-5 problem." In aging studies/gerontology courses where students must have direct contact with older adults, they often do so by volunteering at nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. While this contact is beneficial, it doesn't convey an accurate picture of who older adults are and how they live, Bradfield explains. Only 5 percent of adults 65 and older live in long-term care facilities. Most live in their own homes and are healthy and active.
"We want to expose our students to older adults who are doing quite well, who are enjoying life, who we call the 'wellderly'," Bradfield says.
Bradfield emphasizes that exposure to this wellderly population can go a long way to defusing the notion, real or perceived that there is a conflict between the generations. Fueled by media reports, attention is focused on shrinking human services resources - on Medicare, Social Security, health care, and who is going to pay for it all - stretching to meet the needs of a growing older population who have more political clout simply because they vote at about three times the rate as young adults.
"The Internet project offers a pretty nice forum for discussing these issues" and for finding common ground, Bradfield says. In the process, often strongly entrenched stereotypes begin to dissolve. "One of the ways you reduce stereotypes is by getting people communicating under optimum conditions," Bradfield says.
Bradfield, founding coordinator of the JMUElderhostel, has a habit of providing such opportunities. As co-founder of JMU's Center for Service Learning, he helped create a program that encourages students to perform volunteer work in the community and encourages faculty members to incorporate community service into their curricula. Now a model for similar centers across the country, its operational philosophy is Bradfield's own - that community service enriches student learning as much as it does the community they serve. The basis for that enrichment is the same as it is for the Intergenerational Internet Project. Education and understanding result from contact among diverse individuals who learn about one another and see events and issues from other perspectives.
Harrisonburg resident Kathy Hoover saw the project "as a way to learn about society from the perspective of the student in hopes of being able to understand the trends in the world." The results surprised her. Her student partners weren't nearly "as liberal as one would expect or many of the older generation would lead you to believe. I felt the students were more conservative than I am."
JMU senior Jodi Navon also found that the project refuted the stereotypes many her age have of senior citizens. "I've come to realize that stereotypes are a huge part of our younger generation. They're everywhere." And, Navon says, she was able to dispel a few stereotypes about her own generation. "I'm a person who's 20 years old. That doesn't mean I'm a slacker."
Additionally, the Internet project and LLI offer a kind of "surrogate grandparenting" for traditional JMU students. "JMU's undergraduate students tend to be from families that are fairly mobile" and often have limited contact with their grandparents, Bradfield says. By communicating with LLI members, traditional students "often feel like they're learning about their own grandparents," Bradfield says. In turn, these older LLI students get a glimpse of the attitudes, ideas and problems of their grandchildren's generation.
Thiel, who retired in 1990 from the New York State Department of Corrections, agrees. "I really do enjoy the fact that young people do listen to (or read) my thoughts on a given subject matter and respond in a very intelligent and thought-provoking way." And her communication with Navon and JMU student Lindsay Russell "brought me back to parts of my own life - particularly interpersonal relationships with older people who had had an influence on my life."
While the e-mail mode of communication offered by the Internet project lacks personal contact, it does provide a neutral turf - a computer screen. Participants aren't intimidated by physical posturing, facial gestures, tone of voice or appearance.
Cathy Thompson, who taught the Gerontology 280 course and related seminars and has taught some LLI computer courses, notes, "It is amazing to me to see the relationships that do form as a result of this means of communication. It is also amazing to see both generations enjoy using this type of technology."
In addition to the Internet project, the LLI opens other avenues for intergenerational communication - opening LLI classes to traditional students and a speaker's bureau of senior citizens. On the flip side, the LLI gives younger participants a chance to assume new, even authoritative roles. Particularly in the computer classes, graduate assistants often serve as instructors, and undergraduates are teaching assistants.
What better way is there to break down the "generation gap" than by having the generations rely on each other to learn and succeed? Bradfield believes there is none.
At the end of each semester's Internet project, which is constantly being refined by Grembi and instructor Marylin Wakefield, participants finally meet each other in person. The setting is informal, and the reactions are surprising. For many, the first greetings are a nervous laugh, then a hug or a handshake, but then, conversation launches from the most recent e-mail message and veers into an animated orbit of discussion.
Bradfield occasionally looks up from his own conversations and glances at the pairings scattered throughout the room.
As he listens to the rise and fall of conversation, a smile spreads across his face. He has achieved success.
These are the conversations he'd like to see expand beyond the Internet project, for the integration of traditional and nontraditional students, he recognizes, holds far more than the potential for the generations to learn about one another.
Imagine learning about McCarthyism alongside a classmate who can talk about the prevailing attitudes of the time; the post- World War II housing boom alongside a man who was just beginning a family in the early 1950s; or gender equality or sexual harassment alongside a woman who entered the workforce in the early 1970s.
Bradfield stresses that such exchanges work in both directions, with each group gaining as much as giving. Imagine discussing economic cycles with classmates who waited in long gas lines during the early 1970s or with classmates who spent their early years in day care while both parents worked outside the home.
The Internet project is a potential platform for further encouraging the mixing of traditional and nontraditional students, creating a fuller rounder education for all.
Nontraditional students offer memories, tempered by experience and time, enhancing younger students' understanding. Traditional students offer the perspective of youth, with hope and enthusiasm often unrestrained by time and experience. That can serve as a mental and emotional tonic for older students and a reminder that in the passing of the torch to a younger generation, they are placing it - and perhaps ultimately themselves - in capable hands.