It’s one thing to retire. It’s another thing entirely to stop working and then share your career experiences with succeeding generations. And that’s just what residents in some Cincinnati retirement communities are doing, through Episcopal Retirement Homes’ (ERH) Council for Life Long Engagement program.
Eradicating ageism by bringing youth and elders together.
CLLE (pronounced colloquially as “Clee”), is a volunteer effort by residents of ERH communities that puts seniors at the front of area classrooms. Participants share their career and life experiences with students, giving lectures that dovetail with curricula the children are learning in their courses.
The Council has been highly successful over its four-year existence, having garnered respect nationwide from advocates for the aged and nonprofit organizations alike. In 2013, the ERH received the Hobart Jackson Cultural Diversity Award from LeadingAge, a conglomeration of over 6,000 senior-advocacy and senior service-based non-profit organizations that is “dedicated to expanding the world of possibilities for aging.”
“If we’re going to change how society feels about elders,” explained Laura Lamb, CLLE founder and Vice President of Housing and Healthcare for ERH, “we have to change how children feel about elders.”
The idea, she said, is to improve seniors’ quality of life by helping others to value them more highly, and thus help older people to understand and feel that they have important contributions yet to make even after retirement.
As Lamb put it, “How can you improve someone’s life if they’re not valued?”
More than just a speaking program.
The Council seeks to do far more than supplement classroom instruction, however. Each speaker is carefully chosen, such that the discussion of their life experiences will prove a unique and integral part of a teacher’s lesson plan for that subject.
Moreover, though, CLLE provides a rare opportunity for two widely disparate age groups to come together and communicate. Children can perceive older people not just as a person of advanced years, but for his or her rich store of accumulated knowledge. And elders get a chance to relive, through the children’s reactions, the senses of wonder and innocence they invariably once experienced.
It changes expectations and perceptions on both sides, suggested Stefanie Kathman, whose class at Nativity School in Cincinnati’s Pleasant Ridge neighborhood has hosted several CLLE speakers.
“Having this real-life experience shows the students that [CLLE volunteers] are not just ‘old people,’” she said. “They’re people who have experiences and have knowledge that can help the younger generation.”
“The residents may think of the young kids as the stereotypical disobedient children,” added Kathman. “They get a different perspective, as well, when they come into the classroom and the students are receptive, welcoming and appreciative.”
Participating ERH residents testify to its success.
Involvement in CLLE brings a deep sense of fulfillment to residents that simply can’t be found in any other setting. The volunteerism brings depth and variation to their lives and gives residents an invaluable creative outlet.
Dan Wheeler, a Marjorie P. Lee resident and retired associate professor in Psychology and Education from the University of Cincinnati, recently spoke to Kathman’s fifth grade class about two of his lifelong hobbies: photography and cartography.
Using his experience as an educator, he was able to seamlessly merge the two subjects, first talking about a photograph of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, then leading the students in an exercise curing which they had to find the gorilla’s enclosure on a zoo map.
For Wheeler, the lesson was not only a chance to pair sharing his hobbies with his extensive career in education, but an experience he truly enjoyed.
“It’s delightful to have good contact with the young people you get to meet,” he remarked.
Like Wheeler, not all the speakers lecture on their former careers. Some go simply to discuss subjects in which they have deep interest. A radiologist with a lifelong fascination of space exploration recently taught Kathman’s class about the Apollo 8 mission.
“He was so passionate about it and so informative that the kids thought he was an astronaut,” the teacher recounted. “They thought he had actually been to the moon.”
Other retirement communities are taking notice.
Lamb and the ERH team have assisted nine other retirement communities in the United States and Canada in designing and implementing CLLE-style programs. The materials they have developed for use here in Cincinnati — including a program guidebook and a staff mentor — are made available to participating communities.
“We started out with one school, with one teacher,” Lamb noted, “but it’s just contagious."