Interages brings the generations together

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Alexis Bentz

In the 1980s, Austin Heyman knew that something had to be done to improve the sometimes rocky relationship between the older and younger generations.

“Somebody brought to my attention an article about intergenerational connections,” Heyman recalled. “Since I’d worked a lot with schools and kids’ issues, I thought that it would be beneficial to have those connections on a personal level. ‘Maybe this is something we could do in Montgomery County,’ I thought.”

Since it began, 45,000 children, teens and seniors throughout the county have been touched by the intergenerational programs of Interages. This nonprofit organization, founded by Heyman and later adopted by the Jewish Center for the Aging, has been serving the community since 1986.

Interages’ Assistant Director Leah Bradley explained, “The exact programs have changed, but that idea that there is a need to connect the generations in a way that allows members of all generations to really thrive and connect with one another has stayed the same.”

Students of all ages

Current programs include Dialogues Across the Ages, in which high school students discuss topics of their choice with older adults; Grand Readers, where elders help second graders develop reading skills; and Intergenerational Bridges, in which older participants work with immigrant students to increase their knowledge of the English language and American customs.

Conversely, in many of the organization’s programs, the younger generation helps seniors. An example of this would be Interages’ technology program, in which teenagers answer older adults’ questions about electronic devices.

What has also stayed the same over 30-plus years is the passion that the more than 250 Interages volunteers feel for the organization’s programs.

Volunteer Matt Rother is involved in the Dialogues, Grand Readers and Bridges programs. Regarding Dialogues, Rother said, “It gives [kids] a chance to lead a group, to interact with adults who they don’t know and have never met before, and build confidence in that.” 

Instilling a love of reading

Volunteer Joan Joseph has been volunteering at Interages in the Grand Readers program for more than four years. “We are working with second graders, and [for] many of these children, English is not spoken at home,” she explained.

“I think it really helps the kids with language. Many of these children do not have access to somebody who speaks English a lot to them after school....So that’s why the program is so important. It keeps their momentum up.”

Joseph recounted a story of a time when a child she had been working with fell in love with reading — and with her — so much, that he asked his mother if he could have a play-date with Ms. Joan so they could continue to read together.

“Volunteering is a two-way street,” she noted. “I think it’s mutually beneficial.”

“You know, you sometimes hear about ‘poor old folks,’” mused volunteer Bill Torrey, 72. “Those of us at Interages are anything but! We are continually engaged with young folks who keep us young. 

“Four or five of us, maybe more, will serve as really old models,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m thoroughly involved in Interages; it’s one of the most rewarding things I could have found in retirement.” 

Assistant Director Bradley added, “The benefits  are the opportunity to be engaged in a meaningful volunteer experience, an opportunity to give back to the larger community, an opportunity to learn what’s happening with younger generations.” 

Heyman described a moment that validated all his work. A simple question was asked to students involved in a program before it began: What do you think of seniors?

“Before the program, [their replies] had all been negative: crotchety, cranky, sick and so on. After the program, we asked again [and they said], ‘Well, they’re just like us only they’ve lived longer.’”

A similar question was asked to participating older adults: What do you think of kids? Before the program, the seniors had replied, “Oh, they’re preoccupied with sex and drugs, and wouldn’t be interested in talking to us.”

“Afterwards,” Heyman remembered, “one gentleman said, ‘Well...I feel good about the future.’

“I just thought that was such a confirmation of the program,” Heyman said.

To learn more about Interages programs or to volunteer, call (301) 255-4234 or visit www.accessjca.org/programs/interages.