The Sage Connection:

Finding joy in intergenerational engagement

How Olympia-based STEP inspires "people to bridge the generations through empowering conversations"

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I recently spoke with Linda Terry, the Founder and Director of STEP, (Sharing Time with Elders Project) and the first thing that struck me was the joy in her voice.

We spoke over the phone, but I could actually hear her smile. This is a woman that clearly loves what she does. And what she does is bring together the young and old for shared learning, listening and understanding of what makes us both different and alike.

Terry started this intergenerational volunteer program in Olympia in 2014 and in Victoria, British Columbia in 2018 in response to the need to change the social norm of aging and strengthen the community by bridging the generations through fun, thought-provoking conversations.

The inspiration came from the Squaxin Island Tribe's First Salmon Ceremony, where she was moved by the fact that the elders of the tribe were served their meals by the youth, who ate after the elders had all been served.

“It is common knowledge that Native American, Asian, African and Hispanic cultures treat their elderly with more respect for their life experiences and wisdom than most of us from European descent.” Terry explained.

But how can we change this? Baby steps.

Terry began STEP with a 12-week pilot program by “borrowing” youngsters from friends and inviting some elders from another group to get together for a ‘visit’.

The kids were unimpressed with the idea and the elders were a little skeptical. It began with games, puzzles and a little music.

After a few sessions when the kids arrived to pick up their packets for that meeting, one youngster announced he didn’t want his. He just wanted to talk to someone. The next meeting there were two kids refusing their packets in favor of visiting and very soon thereafter all the packets were retired in favor of just conversing with each other.

Topics are announced in advance and have ranged from climate control to current affairs. One conversation that took place, one on one, between an elder and a transgendered youth, allowed the youth to explain their fears and challenges in a safe place. As it happened, the elder they chose to speak with had a transgendered grandchild. After this conversation the elder thanked the youth for helping her to better understand and support her grandchild.

When they could all meet in person, music also played a large part of their enjoyment but during COVID all weekly meetings have taken place via ZOOM.

Terry says "mentorship is reciprocal," that "if you are over 45 and don't have a mentor under 30, you're missing fundamental shifts in thinking that are happening." 

We seniors have much to share – but also much to learn from the younger generation.

Serendipitously, I recently caught a PBS program extolling the same theme – this time on how to head off dementia. Keep learning new things is the mantra and if you can include a little teaching along the way, we all benefit.

If you would like to explore more about the STEP, go to www.thisisstep.org.

Kathleen Anderson writes this column each week from her home in Olympia.  Contact her at  kathleen@theJOLTnews.com or post your comment below. 

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