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Unexpected Friendships: Why Intergenerational Relationships are Important
By: Kailey Fudge
During the 2015 fall semester, undergraduate students at Clemson University made friendships with people four to five times their age. Led by Communication Professor Stephanie Pangborn, senior Communication students in their final semester took part in a service-learning project with Clemson Downs Retirement Community. The beginning of the semester involved building a theoretical foundation to justify why the project was important. Then, students made weekly visits with one or two residents to put theory to the test and see what magic would unfold.
Stephanie Pangborn joined the Department of Communication in the fall of 2014, with a Ph.D. in Health Communication from Ohio University. Since then, she has led multiple service-learning courses with Clemson Downs, a senior living community just up the road from campus. Growing up, Pangborn spent a lot of time with senior citizens. She frequently visited senior communities throughout her childhood and into college, making visits to sing, play games, and simply talk with those who wanted some company. She constantly found herself in immersed in friendships with elders who significantly impacted her life. In a service–learning class during her junior year of college, she realized how comfortable she was in those settings and what a unique gift that was for her life. “I’ve always been intrigued by how intergenerational friendships happen and what good comes of them, and I am constantly surprised by it,” Pangborn said. “I love introducing other people to that feeling of building friendships that they don’t expect.” To share this experience with Clemson students, Pangborn began a service–learning partnership with Clemson Downs.
“There is so much to gain through the integration of these communities that are separated by less than five miles.”
Pangborn has integrated service learning in each of the courses she has taught this year, as well as pursued service-learning opportunities with the fraternity and sorority life community for which she and her husband, Nic, serve as faculty-in-residence. Her health communication class focused on building relationships with residents in assisted living and contributing to their social and emotional well–being. Her creative inquiry students devoted their time to the Creekside Cottage, the memory care facility, to engage residents as well as their families and other community members in creative projects including art, music, and storytelling. Finally, students in her senior capstone class spent time each week cultivating intergenerational friendships with residents while also learning more about themselves before entering life outside of college.
Pangborn says the premise of service learning is to identify needs within your community and then apply your knowledge, skills, and talents to best meet those needs. Embracing this philosophy, Pangborn pursued what has become an incredibly meaningful partnership with the Clemson Downs community. Upon initially meeting Dr. John LeHeup, Executive Director, and Ruthie Millar, marketing specialist, there was no question that the possibilities for mutual benefit were endless and they were eager to participate. A clear starting point for the partnership became obvious when they expressed that there was an overwhelming desire among the residents to be more connected to the Clemson University community that they so desperately love. As Pangborn described, “Many of them are Clemson alumni and several were professors here. Although life may have moved them elsewhere in the meantime, they have now committed to spending the remainder of their lives in Clemson because they care so much about it. There is so much to gain through the integration of these communities that are separated by less than five miles.”
Pangborn knew that this partnership would present a great service-learning opportunity in the truest sense of the concept. Students would have the opportunity to interact with and learn from residents who had a rich history at Clemson University and many more years of life experience. At the same time, residents would benefit from the company of students who and becoming immersed in a social setting that would inspire a sense of community. In actuality, the partnership became one of mutual service that was rooted in genuine appreciation for one another even in light of the many differences that often keeps these generations divided.
At the beginning of the semester, students and residents grouped up and continued to meet weekly for three months. They started off by referring to each other as “buddies” but by the end of the semester, they considered each other “friends.” Students created videos for their “buddies” to act as a tangible representation of their relationship. Pangborn explained that these relationships are all wildly different. “Some are funny. Some are very focused on learning about life and lessons that residents want to share with students. And some have been more focused on what students can teach the residents, everything from Clemson football to technology to what’s going on in the world,” Pangborn said.
Students found similarities and possibilities in people and places they never expected. With the creation of the buddy videos, students acknowledge their friends and show why their relationship is important. Pangborn refers to one of her favorite theorist, Bakhtin, for what he describes as the ultimate death–to be unheard, unrecognized, and unremembered. Through intentional time spent each week sharing stories, recalling the past, and envisioning the future, both the students and the residents met essential human needs of being heard, recognized, and remembered in personal ways, and the videos ensure their legacy will live on.
“We’re still able to have a conversation, and she’s able to share stories about cool things that she’s done or things that she remembers and life experiences that she’s had.”
Pangborn explained that the goal of the partnership with Clemson Downs is to continue adding new projects every single semester. She says that it will probably be different than what they’ve already done, depending on the wants and needs of the community. Pangborn’s big goal is “to have game day buddies because [Clemson Downs residents] love it so much. So to come to some games on campus, and also to do a tailgate there on away games. Just really, really building that Clemson family because that’s what this all started with.” Her passion and excitement for this blossoming partnership with Clemson Downs will continue to make a difference in the community and inspire students to take part.
A communication major’s correspondence with the elderly
Russell Feaster is a senior communication major from Clemson, SC. He is one of the many students who has learned and grown with friends at Clemson Downs. Russell’s relationship with Ruth Davidson, a 100–year–old woman in the Clemson Downs community, was unique from the start. At the meet and greet, where students and residents got to know one another and choose their “buddies,” Ruth scouted Russell from the crowd, saying she wanted to pair with a “handsome boy” instead of girls. From that point on, Russell was surprised that despite her old age, Ruth wasn’t afraid to make jokes. Russell recalled, “One of the first things she said was, ‘Am I supposed to make cocktails to, like, loosen him up?”
Russell, like many other students, was nervous about entering a world so seemingly different from his own. His only interactions with older people were with his grandparents, whom he already had relationships with, so Russell was unsure how he would connect with Ruth. “We can’t talk about Instagram, or Facebook, or pop culture, or TV, and that’s so much of my life,” he said. Russell learned how to trust the process—how to embrace the discomfort and find ways to work through it. He did this with the intention of asking questions and learning about things he might not know. He learned that even at 100 years–old, Ruth is still human, and their interactions weren’t going to be defined by age. “I had this mentality going into it, like, ‘She’s so old. What are we going to talk about?’ But even though there’s a 78–year gap between us—literally a person’s lifespan between us—we’re still able to have a conversation, and she’s able to share stories about cool things that she’s done or things that she remembers and life experiences that she’s had,” Russell said.
Russell and Ruth usually spend their time together walking. From these walks and talks, Russell has taken away many life lessons from Ruth. To begin, she has taught him how to slow down—in the physical, mental, and emotional sense. Of course at her age, Ruth walks much slower than Russell, and he has learned how to be patient and not rush to get places. She also advises Russell to “get rest and take care of yourself, and slow down and pay attention to the little details that we may just rush past.” Russell has learned through this experience that being present with another person is a productive way to spend your time rather than measuring productivity by how much you can fit into one day, as our society so often does.
Reflecting on this course, Russell expressed the enjoyment of watching the “mesh of education and life coming together.” Applying theory to real life situations has shown him how to utilize his skills and knowledge to achieve a greater good and to meet the needs of other people. Russell and his classmates feel more prepared to tackle life after college where they will inevitably encounter people different than themselves—where they will be expected to find comfort amidst the uncertainty. Russell, along with many other students who will be around Clemson next semester, have already made commitments to continue visiting their buddies and maintaining their relationship.
Ruth Davidson of Clemson Downs
Ruth Davidson is one of the many residents of the Clemson Downs senior living community who participated in an intergenerational relationship-building experience with Clemson University students through Stephanie Pangborn’s courses. Ruth is 100 years–old and still going strong. She is always out and about, and you will likely find her anywhere but her apartment. Through the course of Pangborn’s service–learning class, she thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Russell, her student “buddy,” and reconnecting with young people. “I love young people and I love to talk to them,” Ruth said. “For me it’s a treat to get to talk to them one-on-one, because otherwise I don’t get to.”
At Clemson Downs, Ruth is removed from the younger generations that she wants to know. She often ventures over to Clemson University’s Brooks Center to watch shows and hopefully interact with college students. Unfortunately, her conversations with these students are usually brief and remain at a surface level, so she still lacks the connection for which she yearns. For this reason, Ruth took special interest in this service–learning program. She enjoyed building a meaningful relationship with Russell over time because she loved the “energy and vision of the future” that Russell and people his age have.
Not only did Ruth enjoy listening to Russell’s stories and having the opportunity to feed off of his positive energy, but she also appreciated the security of getting to know a nice young man his age. Since Ruth had been disconnected from younger generations in the past, her only point of reference was the news, which she feels is filled with negative stories of hatred and dishonesty. However, Ruth has now found optimism in the future after getting to know Russell, a young man whom she believes improves the people around him and his world.
More specifically, Ruth and other residents at Clemson Downs want to feel connected to the young people at Clemson University. “You’d be surprised how many adults here live and die for the Tigers,” Ruth said. Clemson University is built on traditions like the Clemson ring and the engraved alumni names on the sidewalk, of which many residents of Clemson Downs are a part. Ruth spoke a lot about how she formed a relationship with Dabo after he, along with the football team, visited Clemson Downs. She had a memorable conversation with him to which he followed up with an autographed picture. “I’ve got a picture of him on my wall with his hand on Howard’s Rock and he’s smiling and wishing me a happy 100th birthday.” Ruth has bridged the gap between the college community and the senior living community through her friendship with Russell.
Written By: Kailey Fudge
Kailey is a senior Communications major with a minor in Psychology from La Jolla, California. She is a group fitness instructor at Fike and a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity. She is passionate about experiencing different cultures and cuisines and meeting new people.