MMS, Senior Share partner for intergenerational program

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Senior citizens and a group of Maplewood Middle School students came together for a brainstorming session in the school’s library Monday, April 16, to discuss the benefits of middle school students and seniors spending time together for the launch of the Share/Exchange program. The event was a collaboration between Maplewood Senior Share, a group that raises awareness for seniors in town, and MMS students and staff. The program will pair students with seniors to spend time together at events both inside and outside school.

Irene Dunsavage, one of the founders of Maplewood Senior Share, came up with the program after seeing research that found both seniors and young people can benefit from forming relationships with each other. The middle school students can help senior citizens with everyday tasks like grocery shopping and cooking, and technology, while seniors can teach students what it is like to age and draw on a lifetime of experiences.

“We’re at this point in time when we really want to connect kids with seniors,” Dunsavage, who was an art teacher at Clinton Elementary School for more than 30 years, said at the event. “Many seniors say they want someone to play a game of Scrabble with or read and talk with.”

The MMS students filled out questionnaires about their interests and talents so that Dunsavage and other members of Maplewood Senior Share can pair them with participating senior citizens. Maplewood resident Jim Buchanan, once a student at MMS himself, said that, as a musician, he would be able to find common ground with a student who is also interested in music.

“The things that our kids struggle with are things that seniors can teach,” MMS Principal Dara Gronau told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “They can contextualize the past.”

Gronau said the school wanted to work with the seniors so that two clubs could tie community service into their year. The Middle Minority Achievement Committee Scholars and the Martin Luther King Jr. Club will be working with senior citizens in the Maplewood community. The Middle MAC Scholars club focuses on academic excellence for black students, students of African descent and other minorities.

“This is a clear need in the community,” Gronau said. “Many seniors are lonely and want someone to talk to, and I think for the kids, it softens them and they can start to see members of their family and grandparents differently. Sometimes it’s hard to see outside of themselves, (to see) that the world doesn’t start and end with them.”

According to MMS social studies teacher and Middle MAC Scholars adviser Steve Rosefort, one benefit of this program is that students will have the opportunity to work a segment of the SOMA community with which they may not often interact, especially at school.

“They normally don’t see this part of the community, and it’s a community that I wasn’t even aware of,” Rosefort said in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “I didn’t realize there was such a big senior population in Maplewood.”

Another benefit is the perspective the seniors can offer their middle school partners, according to MMS science teacher Alyssa Schlatmann.

“They can see that different perspective,” she said in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “Especially since some (senior citizens) have grown up here and have that really interesting perspective in the community.”

Dunsavage said the seniors can gain just as much as the students from the new program; many senior citizens want someone to talk to and spend time with, and the program will give them that opportunity. Seniors will also be able to teach students about aging, because, as Dunsavage said, there are stages of aging. Someone who is 70 years old has a different experience than someone who is 90.

“They were good about picking up on that they want to talk to each other,” Dunsavage said about the MMS students at the event in an interview with the News-Record. “They’ll gain wisdom that the seniors have that they don’t have yet.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic