A summer course in literary gerontology brought students together with older adults to form an intergenerational reading circle.

Blog post by Trudy Medcalf

A man in his 80s has just arrived from the long-term care home down the road. He sits in his wheelchair around a rectangular table with another older person and four undergraduate students. We’re at Huntington University in Sudbury, affiliated with Laurentian University. The students are in a summer course in literary gerontology although they are not all gerontology students, and the older adults are volunteers. They and five more tables of a similar mix are taking part in our first intergenerational reading circle.

Everyone has a copy of the same set of readings and has had at least a week to prepare. They tell me later that, young or old, they were nervous. How will we fill 90 minutes with conversation, a student asks? Most of the younger ones wonder what they have to contribute to discussions with people who know so much about growing old. Some of the older ones wonder about the wisdom of agreeing to work together with university students. No one dares to admit to their misgivings yet. Their readings include excerpts from works by Oliver Sacks, Constance Beresford-Howe and Julian Barnes, as well as a selection of poetry.

Both younger and older participants have received preparation for the event, although not much. Designated students are ready to open their table’s discussion.

Time to begin.

Reading circles are made up of small groups of people who share a love of reading and of sharing ideas. They are usually facilitated and meet weekly for a number of weeks to discuss a new set of readings each time – usually a mix of excerpts distributed at the start of the program, from novels and memoirs, short stories and poetry. All of the reading circles I have co-facilitated1 have been designed for older adults and have explored an assortment of themes about growing old and living in old age. Before last week, I had never given thought to the idea of an intergenerational reading circle. But sometimes the time is right and the idea presents itself. Then it’s simply a matter of following through.

And how did it all turn out?

Consider this selection of comments written by the students:

“The intergenerational learning was an amazing experience. I believe that some of the benefits for both the older and younger adults were challenging biases of both and realizing that everyone is just living their lives.”

“All in all, we wished it hadn’t been only 90 minutes; our group heartily agreed we could have gone on all day with each other. It was wonderful to see how much each of us learned from the other, each and every single group member included.”

“Holding a conversation in person is essential to show that older adults may be at a different stage in life, yet they are still human beings and are more alike to younger adults than many believe…I was grateful to have had my presumptions about older adults destroyed.”

Here are some of the comments written by the older volunteers:

“I found that talking about questions like, ‘How does this selection connect to me or to others in my life,’ with the students fostered real connection by sharing deeper feelings, ideas and personal concerns.”

“My experience was positive for many reasons. I felt like I can still contribute to society and academic research even in old age.”

“Learning from other seniors enriched my understanding of the aging journey. We are not alone and can laugh at times at our struggles.”

“It was fascinating to see the various thoughts of students of different backgrounds and age. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”

….

Waiting outside for the van that would take the man sitting in a wheelchair back home, I learned that both he and a young woman at his table, a nursing student as it turned out, found they had underlined the exact same sentence within one of the readings, exciting them both. He told me it was a line from Oliver Sacks’ memoir, Gratitude. He wrote, “I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.”

  1. With Wendy Robbins, in Ottawa. For more information, please see www.agingbythebook.ca