Community Roundtable: Bridging Generations of New Jerseyans for a Healthier, More Equitable Recovery

“For at least 50 years, I have felt that in all situations we need to include at least three generations. We can all learn from one another and we can all help, comfort and support each other, and it might be just the right thing for our community.”

– Marilyn Talmage
Freehold Borough senior resident and
a member of the Freehold Intergenerational Community Council

To improve health for everyone, communities throughout New Jersey and the nation have prioritized building connections between seniors and youth. Recently, coalition partners from five communities that New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) supports, Elizabeth, Freehold, Irvington, Lawnside and Lindenwold, sat down virtually with NJHI to share the intergenerational approaches they have implemented, their accomplishments, lessons learned and vision for this work. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living’s annual observance of Older Americans Month wraps up, we had the opportunity to chat about creating social connections, centering youth voices and sustaining this work with the following individuals who lead the work: Linda Brown, Neighborhood Connections to Health Executive Director; Alison Bryant, MEND Hunger Relief Network- Church Women United Pantry Director; Angelica Espinal-Garcia, Freehold Area Health Department Educator and Freehold Intergenerational Community Council Program Coordinator; Stephania Gonzalez-Mena, Elizabeth Next Generation Community Leaders Coach, Algiers Holmes, Lawnside Board of Health Secretary; Rev. Cynthia Jackson, Innovations Ministries Director at Generations, Inc.; Jonathan Phillips, Groundwork Elizabeth Executive Director; and Linda Sanders, Innovations Ministries Assistant Director at Generations, Inc.

NJHI: How did your community identify intergenerational connections as a priority for improving health? What data, if any, have informed your efforts?

Linda, Freehold: During the creation of the Neighborhood Connections to Health coalition in 2017, our partners held community focus groups to identify residents’ needs. As a result of that work, the coalition identified four priorities and formed work groups around each. A predominant theme in the focus groups was the desire for unity among cultural and generational groups, which led to the formation of the Intergenerational Physical Activity work group. In early 2020, Neighborhood Connections to Health collaborated with the Freehold Borough School District to establish the Freehold Intergenerational Community Council. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with this work, which in some ways helped to expand the idea and importance of social connections. Previously, a commonly held belief was that social isolation is only an issue for the senior population, but we now know it affects all ages. The 14-member council is currently completing a Leadership for All Ages training, which is an evidence-based leadership curriculum that has proven to be effective in improving skills and bridging generational gaps in other communities.

Angelica, Freehold: In addition to the past focus groups, the Leadership for All Ages training asked the council selection committee to go into the community and reach out to residents to determine what is important to them. These outreach activities are serving to provide data to the council. Essentially, our coalition is working to build the committee members’ skills. They are collecting the data to inform the council’s work. Given the diversity in the ages and backgrounds of the committee – from senior resident Marilyn Talmage to 15-year-old Emma Howson, the input that they are gathering is “steering the ship.”

Algiers, Lawnside: We’re working to establish Lawnside as an age-friendly community because we learned from City Health Dashboard and other data sets that 23 percent of Lawnside residents are 65-years-old and older, and nearly eight percent of residents are between 18 and 24 years old. Our coalition’s goal is to create a welcoming space for all residents.

Cynthia, Lindenwold: We held six community focus groups, including one at Harvest House, in a previous phase of work. In their focus group, the Harvest House residents expressed concern about missing their families. We began to focus on social isolation as a community health priority because addressing that issue can impact physical, spiritual and emotional health. At that time, we began exploring opportunities to connect the generations. Our initial plans were to build a community garden and host social engagement activities for the youth and seniors. In the face of the pandemic, we adapted our plan and shifted to providing support for the senior residents and youth to exchange cards and handwritten letters through our Letters of Love program.

NJHI: In what ways are you bringing seniors and youth together? What does this work look like in your community?

Alison, Irvington: Prior to the pandemic, we partnered with area high schools, community sports teams and local civic organizations to identify 10 or more youth who were interested in visiting the senior center and getting to know our older community members. We organized activities such as painting parties, baking classes with a local chef, technology workshops, homework assistance, a King and Queen Dance, meet-and-greet table talks, library story hours and movie nights followed by intergenerational film discussions.

Stephania, Elizabeth: For the first year of our Next Generation Community Leaders program, our coaches and project director worked with the youth participants to help them feel comfortable with sharing their ideas, because they weren’t used to adults really listening to them.  Once they felt comfortable, they began sharing personal stories about their lives and health concerns they had for our community. One youth, Shadon Taylor, opened up about his grandfather falling at home and eventually passing away because of the incident. It was an emotional moment for everyone on the team. This personal story and information from the City of Elizabeth Office on Aging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Generations United prompted a concern that more seniors might be at risk of falls and the team developed a plan to conduct home safety audits for seniors and ensure that they had food in their homes. Through this program, genuine connections developed between the youth and seniors. Although the youth implemented their program in the summer of 2018, some program alumni are still in touch with the seniors.

Algiers, Lawnside: We have started a community garden with an intergenerational plot and in April 2021, safely brought the seniors and youth together for an Earth Day planting activity on school grounds. Our hope is to strengthen the relationships between the seniors and youth by hosting outdoor movie nights at the community center, and innovative armchair travel programs using virtual reality headsets or other technology.

Linda, Lindenwold: Letters of Love is the phase of the Just for You program that provides youth and seniors an informal opportunity to connect one-on-one by exchanging letters, drawings and birthday cards to reduce social isolation. On a broader level, the Just for You program delivers fresh produce, recipes and health information to seniors at three housing communities in Lindenwold with support from NJHI through the New Jersey Healthy Communities Network.

In the next installment of this conversation, these project directors and colleagues will highlight their partners and discuss what it means to center youth voices in this work or other initiatives.

Captions, from top: To celebrate Earth Day 2021, a coalition of Lawnside partners safely brought together youth and senior residents to revitalize school grounds in their community. Linda Brown, Neighborhood Connections to Health Executive Director; A Lawnside senior and youth work together to plant flowers; Alison Bryant, MEND Hunger Relief Network- Church Women United Pantry Director; a 2018 photo of the Elizabeth Next Generation Community Leaders and the senior residents they met through their summer project. All photos submitted by the grantee organizations.
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