BGSU students bridge the pandemic divide
Communication-gerontology collaboration creates community engagement project with long-term care facility in Columbus
While the pandemic was severely limiting our interactions with others and forcing many to function inside a protective and often lonely self-enforced bubble, a group of Bowling Green State University students explored a different avenue of communication and found a landscape of exciting new connections.
Dr. Sandra Faulkner from the School of Media and Communication collaborated with Dr. Wendy Watson in gerontology to create a community engagement project that linked students with residents of the Worthington Christian Village long-term care facility in Columbus.
What has transpired in those virtual meetings has gone well beyond digital handshakes and hellos.
“A lot of people my age have a hard time connecting with older people,” said Lugenia Glass, a senior communication major, “but I think we've found this to be a wonderful experience. We get to speak with people who have been on amazing life journeys and adventures, and we've found that many of us have encountered similar situations in life — whether that's losing people we love or changes in relationships. We found out that we are very similar, despite the age differences.”
The format calls for monthly Zoom meetings where groups of three or four students in Faulkner's Relational Communication class will engage in meaningful conversations with an older adult, serving to ease the social isolation during COVID, foster an inter-generational connection and engage in community-based learning. There are eight residents from the care facility involved in the project and 34 students.
Faulkner had observed the detrimental impact of pandemic-related isolation on her own parents who she had not been able to visit. She also felt isolated from the greater University community. That provided the impetus for this project.
“One of the things that struck me was that while teaching remotely, I was missing seeing students in person,” she said. “So, I talked with Wendy about what kinds of engagement projects we could come up with, things that are mutually beneficial for our students and the community.”
When logistical issues prevented the class from being able to establish a link with Bowling Green area adult care facilities, the BGSU professors were able to reach out to 2014 gerontology program graduate Lauren Feyh, now director of health care center activities at the Worthington facility.
Feyh said the University students are serving the public good as they complete their course work, adding that any trepidation the residents might have had about meeting students over Zoom quickly evaporated.
“Before the pandemic, any virtual programming here was very minimal, but there has been a definite shift,” she said. “These older adults are resilient, and they have adapted to it. Now, they look forward to these sessions with the students and they are excited about it.”
Feyh said Worthington Christian Village has in-house iPads, which are set up ahead of time to avoid technical glitches and create the best experience for the participating residents.
“Meeting new people can be overwhelming, especially with it all being virtual, and we didn't want them to retract due to the unfamiliar technology,” Feyh said. “Because of the pandemic we haven't been able to allow students and outside visitors here, but this is the next-best thing. This has given the residents a change, a break from the isolation of the pandemic and they are really receptive to it.”
Watson said that while COVID has taken away so much from people's lives, it did create this unique opportunity to open students' eyes to relationships beyond their own.
“Part of the beauty of being able to use Zoom to conduct these sessions is that the students not only get to hear what the lives of these older adults are like, but they also get to see that older adults can use tech, too,” she said. “In many ways, they are not that different. It's two different generations, but both are working for the benefit of each other.”
The students submit their observations about the inter-generational communication sessions in journals, and Faulkner said those accounts have been very informative.
“I'm finding out that they are developing a greater appreciation for the life experiences of older adults, and they've been able to dispel some of the myths about older adults,” she said. “Some of my students indicated they didn't know what to expect going into these conversations, but clearly one of the benefits of this will be having them now thinking about ageism.”
That is precisely what the interaction with the residents of Worthington Christian Village has provided for Gavin Friedrichsen, a junior majoring in communication.
“I feel like I don't often get to interact with older people because when you're in college you mostly interact with people your same age, so this has been an interesting experience,” he said. “The man we meet with – some of the events I learned about as history, he has lived those first-person. And it turns out that despite the age difference, his outlook on life turns out to be very similar to mine. This class has broken down some of the barriers and notions I had held toward older people.”
Watson said there have been multiple benefits from the program that go well beyond the curriculum.
“This not only benefits the students as they get to see how this plays out in other people's lives, but also for the residents since they have someone to listen to their stories and relate to them, letting them know they are important,” she said.
Glass said she has been meeting with a resident named Carol, who as a retired educator knows how to communicate as a grandmother, a teacher and a friend.
“I am very lucky to have Carol — she is an open book, and she is so enthusiastic about this opportunity,” she said. “She's had very little communication due to COVID, and she has been wonderful. This definitely brightens up her day.”
Faulkner said the program's ambitious goal of providing meaningful inter-generational conversation and dialogue has produced the desired community-based learning and more.
“I've taught other places, but I love BGSU students because they are so engaged in projects like this, and that level of engagement allows us to do good things, on campus and in the community,” she said. “I can tell from the journals and the discussions that they are really interested in learning from older adults, and the lives of these older adults are being enriched by the experience.”