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Intergenerational concept opens new frontiers

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 03 - September 11, 1997

In a memorable exchange some years ago, children from the Virginia Tech Child Development Laboratory were talking with the adults in Adult Day Services. One five-year-old proudly announced his age, and asked one of the adults how old he was. "I'm your age--PLUS one hundred!" the elderly man replied. From that moment on, a connection was made, and the pair became fast friends.

Adult Day Services and the Child Development Laboratory now have a space in which all ages can interact, thanks to the efforts of Interior Design faculty members and students, and a Service-Learning Center grant. The area, once a vacant storage space between the two units, is now an intergenerational space, designed to encourage interaction between the young and old participants of the facilities, as well as the students who serve as assistants.

[Editor's note: September 15-21 is National Adult Day Services Association Week. For more information on Virginia Tech Adult Day Services, call 1-3161; also, see next week's Spectrum for an article on this topic.]

College of Human Resources and Education faculty members Anna Marshall-Baker and Eric Wiedegreen challenged students in their Junior Interior Design Studio to develop concepts and finished planning boards on how best to use the space. The winning scheme used "the front porch" as the driving concept--positive, open, friendly place where people of all ages can meet and feel comfortable. With a grant from Tech's Service-Learning Center, and funds from each of the two clients, the plan became a reality just in time for the beginning of the fall semester.

The Child Development Lab and Adult Day Services are both a part of the College of Human Resources and Education and are located next to each other on the first floor of Wallace Hall. They have encouraged intergenerational activities in the past. Jean Vogler, program director for the Child Development Lab, says the interaction between the two groups yields some very special results. "They develop mutual respect and friendships. Individuals connect and it becomes a family-living type of situation," she says. "Our children also gain an understanding of disabilities, because some of the adults use wheelchairs or have speech difficulties."

"It is most definitely a reciprocal arrangement," said Samantha Painter-Willard, director of Adult Day Services. "Both groups gain from the exchange and the communication." Painter-Willard said intergenerational activities also help in breaking down ageism by exposing the children to older people. "They come to see individuals for who they are rather than their age, their frailness, or disability."

From working together in the past, the directors have learned that they need to balance planned and spontaneous activities. Some of the intergenerational activities they have found highly successful are story telling, food preparation, music, pet therapy, arts and crafts, games, and time together outside in the playground adjacent to the building. They plan to use the children as "greeters" as the adult clients arrive for the day, because the children usually arrive earlier. And they have set up a message center, much like a primitive post office, with a mail box for each adult and child. Through it, they can leave messages, stories, and drawings for one another. They are also considering activities, such as fire-safety programs, which bring in others from the Blacksburg community, and which are of interest to all ages.

The intergenerational space also provides a unique opportunity for research, both within the College of Human Resources and Education and across the university. It is the first such endeavor in the nation in an academic setting, and Vogler and Painter-Willard see it as an opportunity for their undergraduate assistants, graduate research students, as well as colleagues in a wide variety of disciplines across the university to study what happens when different age groups get together, and how they might enhance the experience.

Adult Day Services currently has 13 clients, ranging in age from mid-30s to seniors. The Child Development Lab serves 75 children, ranging in age from infants to five years old.

It was especially challenging for Interior Design students to design the space for use by all age groups as well as people with disabilities. They met with the directors of each facility, observed the clients, and incorporated their activities into the design scheme. The result is sturdy teak porch furniture with rounded corners for safety, a glider to rock on, a picnic table with a large canvas umbrella, plants in picket-fence planters, a piano, and a raised stage area.

"It was a wonderful learning experience for the students because they got to work with real clients, design the space, specify materials working within a real budget, order the furniture and accessories, and actually see the project come to completion," Wiedegreen said.

"This project is a fine example of collaboration at its best, between university and college units, faculty members, and students," Wiedegreen said. "The whole concept of service learning is students using their skills and talents to help others."

The Service-Learning Center at Virginia Tech was founded in January 1995 with the goal of promoting students' learning through hands-on, face-to-face, interactive experiences in the communities and schools of southwest Virginia. Service-Learning students earn academic credit when they integrate their course work with community-service projects that address important local needs.