By Linda Terry
Storytelling is a world-wide, age-old tradition for building connections and making meaning in our lives. Stories can also pass along wisdom and convey values and experiences that help people recognize commonalities across differences, such as between older and younger generations. The Stories Project, a collaboration of Amherst Neighbors and UMass Community Engagement and Service Learning projects, paired 24 local residents over 60 years old with students.
The students met three or four times over Zoom for interviews with the older adults to learn about their experiences with childhood, careers, travel, friends, words of wisdom, and pets. The partners also shared their accomplishments and passions such as artwork, writing, and social justice engagements. Erielle Warshowsky (age 20 ) reported that “meeting my partner was one of the most special parts of my semester. It is important to bridge between older and younger generations. By doing this, I learned that we share many of the same beliefs and values. We both share an affinity for travel and learning about the world’s history, and I now have many tips that will aid me in my quest for becoming a better baker. I hope to stay in touch with her.”
Carlie Tartakov (age 82) and Jaley Fine (age 22), also anticipate continuing their new friendship beyond the project. For Jaley, learning about Carlie’s life led to new opportunities. Carlie shared her life commitment to social justice, which inspired Jaley to volunteer with one of the social justice organizations Carlie helps lead.
A major benefit of the project has been the sharing of new social connections that countered the increased emotional isolation and physical separation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Due to the pandemic, all the conversations took place on Zoom or by phone.) The Stories Project not only turned a difficult semester into an opportunity for mutual discovery, laughter, and shared gratitude but also generated new perspectives about our society, older adults’ sense of contribution to the students and their own families, and the value of storytelling.
Danielle Pearson (age 19) wrote with admiration about Gigi Green’s (age 96) wisdom about societal changes. “My goal was to create an understanding between us and also to use this knowledge to work for a better future. Gigi has helped me bridge between race, gender, and generational issues.” Phyllis Whitney’s son and daughter-in-law were so enthusiastic about the story that Phyllis decided to share it with her whole family as a Christmas message. Sue Lowery (age 63) acknowledged that it was fun to be the center of attention and that most people enjoy having someone interested in their story. The students’ most frequently-recorded words of wisdom were, in essence, “Follow your heart,” as illustrated by this quote by J.J. Knowlton (age 85): “Don’t do what you ought to do only because you think you should. Be unapologetically yourself.”
Amherst Neighbors is a nonprofit organization providing social and practical support for residents who are aging in place in Amherst and Pelham. Theresa Ahrens and Marilyn Denny, Co-Chairs for the Amherst Neighbors Stories Project, collaborated with IMPACT Director Katja Hahn d’Errico and Boltwood Project Faculty Director Ellen Correa to develop the project.
IMPACT and the Boltwood Project provide community service learning opportunities for UMass students. For both organizations, the pandemic changed the programs’ ability to reach out and led to the partnership for this storytelling opportunity.
After a successful first semester, the Stories Project is continuing in the 2021 spring semester. For information about Amherst Neighbors, its ongoing programs, and its “COVID Safe” services (coming in April) please go to www.amherst neighbors.org. Membership is free. A collection of stories from the inaugural years of the project can be found here.
Linda Terry is on the Board of Amherst Neighbors and lives in Amherst. She is a retired family therapist and professor emeritus.