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Building Skills and a New Friendship — At Ages 96 and 19

Intergenerational relationships can be reciprocal and valuable

By Ellen Marks

Lani Kamauoha Chesshir, 96, loves that Tess Reynolds is genuine and patient and doesn't mind answering her sometimes repetitive questions. Reynolds, 19, loves that "Ms. Lani" is an eager student who's willing to tell her "incredible stories" and even sing her the occasional Hawaiian song.

An older adult and young person standing together and smiling. Next Avenue, intergenerational friendship
Lani Kamauoha Chesshir and Tess Reynolds  |  Credit: Ellen Marks

The two generations of New Mexico women have found a bond beyond the true purpose of their meetings: technology tutoring so Chesshir can tap into Facebook, text her relatives and — especially — write her memoirs on her laptop computer.

"I'm really blessed receiving this service," says Chesshir, a Hawaiian native who lives in Rio Rancho, outside of Albuquerque. "I think it's great. I love her (Reynolds') fresh ideas. I am very patient with her, and she's been very patient with me."

Older people, Reynolds says, "are a little more patient with me, more accepting."

The two-person tech team is courtesy of the Albuquerque-based Teeniors program, which pairs teenagers and young adults with older people who need help with their cell phones and computers — everything from streaming movies to paying bills online.

Trish Lopez, the founder of the seven-year-old business, was named a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging in 2021. Teeniors has tutored more than 4,000 older adults and provided work for dozens of teens over the years.

'A Lot of Chatting and Catching Up'

Chesshir and Reynolds get together every other Thursday at the older woman's home, and they spend about two hours working on new skills and addressing any questions that have come up since Reynolds' last visit.

But the sessions also include a lot of chatting and catching up on each other's lives. Reynolds, who is working to become a certified nursing assistant, says she likes hanging out with older people because she gets to make a connection that she doesn't find with her own peers.

Because she has a speech impediment, she has always been "super shy with people not understanding me." Older people, Reynolds says, "are a little more patient with me, more accepting."

Connecting older adults with younger people is important because one in five older adults experiences social isolation, says Emily Allen, senior vice president of the AARP Foundation.

The foundation has partnered with the Gerontological Society of America and several other agencies on Connect2Affect, which has researched and launched ways to address isolation among older adults. The program, Allen says, is "a call to action."

Healthy Benefits of Social Connection

Another of AARP's efforts, Experience Corps, sends volunteers over the age of 50 into the schools to help students master reading skills before they complete the third grade. The foundation found that 65% of students paired with an Experience Corps volunteer increased their reading level by half a year or more, Allen says.

Among the tutors, 84% said they expanded their circle of friends through their participation, and 96% reported an increased sense of purpose, according to Allen.

Such social connection and feelings of worth translate to brain health and improved "indicators around dementia," she says. "It has to do with how we're keeping our brains sharp, our memory and cognitive (health). Sustained volunteer efforts really do have a positive impact on brain health."

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And when technology is thrown into the mix, older adults also get the benefit of widening their world by learning how to talk to their friends or grandchildren through FaceTime, Zoom or WhatsApp, for example.

The Popularity of Intergenerational Programs

The bottom line is that such involvement gives older people "a reason to get out of bed because they're needed, and there's a way they can contribute and share their strengths," says Donna Butts, another Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, and executive director of Generations United, which gathers information about and supports intergenerational programs.

According to Butts, such programs have been around for decades, starting with efforts related to the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s.

"[Intergenerational programs] are getting more and more popular now because people are living longer," she says. "We have this incredible resource that doesn't want to be sidelined. So as we've added years to people's lives, we've added new opportunities."

"Each generation gives, each generation receives. Both are valued."

Some popular programs have involved locating child care centers or pre-K classrooms in buildings that also house senior centers. That way, the two generations can easily interact during the day, Butts says.

But there's a wide variety of examples, some of which seek to address specific social issues. A New York University housing program pairs graduate students who need affordable housing with someone in the area who is 60 and older and has spare space.

Housing agreements — in which students are considered roommates rather than tenants — might include reduced rental fees in exchange for light housework or taking care of the host's pets.

"It's reciprocal," Butts says of such generational partnerships. "Each generation gives, each generation receives. Both are valued."

Eager to Learn from One Another

During a recent session that Reynolds had with Chesshir, the agenda included helping the older woman search Facebook for her pastor's most recent sermon and teaching her how to find folders and documents in Google Docs.

For every instruction Reynolds gave, Chesshir asked, "Why are you doing that?"

It's clear she's an enthusiastic student, but does she ever get frustrated while tackling the skills that come naturally to a younger generation?

"Yes!" Chesshir says, laughing. "That's why I want to learn."

Chesshir, who will be 97 in June, is using her laptop to get down the chapters of her long life, including her experience as a 15-year-old riding the bus down a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor, Oahu, on Dec. 7, 1941.

"I could see these planes, making a slow circle," Chesshir says. "They were gray in color, but they had red, which I didn't realize was the Japanese symbol. So I saw the attack. I've given speeches on it."

And she has a ready listener in Reynolds, who doesn't find many people as enthusiastic and willing to share their stories as Chesshir.

"She knows quite a bit about me, and I've sung for her," says Chesshir. "Now I don't want to hold up her time, and she doesn't want to hold up my time, but she's very interested. And that's what makes her a people person. She cares."

Ellen Marks has been a journalist for more than three decades, including stints in Boise, Idaho, Seattle and Albuquerque, New Mexico. She retired from the Albuquerque Journal three years ago, but continues to do regular assignments for the newspaper. Read More
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