by Priya Brito

Regardless of the amount of training and pre-orientation meetings someone is required to attend, it is difficult to truly imagine what they can expect from a service trip like Branch Out. Over the course of a single week partnering with Senior Connections in Richmond, VA, our BON family both learned about the growing social gaps between different generations as well as forged genuine relationships with those we had the pleasure of meeting.

Even before we left for Richmond, I found myself learning about the overlooked issue of ageism in the United States. I specify the U.S. because, unlike many countries overseas like China or India, attitudes towards the older generations do not take a very grateful approach. In fact, many western countries see older people as burdens to society. It may not be on a conscious level when we make judgments or scoff and roll our eyes when an older gentleman moves too slow or our great aunt continues to ask for help with navigating the latest cell phone or tablet.  But these behaviors are more common than not with younger generations. This year’s Senior Connections group was lucky to have a small enough group from a vast range of cultural backgrounds so that we were able to learn from each other’s individual experiences and interactions with older people. In many situations, people’s respect towards our elders is based on one’s upbringing. In our pre-trip meetings we talked about how the older generations in places like Asia would never be sent to live in a home, for it is seen as disrespectful. They are instead taken care of and are always considered wise and full of life lessons that are crucial at any point in time…never seen as backwards or outdated. During the pre-trip meetings especially, I learned that living in such a fast-paced environment like the U.S. gives the younger and middle-aged generations this inherent need to always be moving and advancing…sometimes moving so fast that it becomes difficult for even us to stay caught up. Many of us frown upon those who stay stagnant in their time. I even find myself getting frustrated when people are walking too slow in front of me or refusing to learn about new technological and societal advancements. And even though my personal experiences have been with peers or college students due to the settings I have been in for the majority of my life thus far, as soon as we enter the “real-world,” the vast majority of people who I would probably be getting frustrated with are the elderly. Even if it’s not in circumstances where we are directly interacting with an older person, we sometimes automatically assume they don’t know about new findings or that they are unable to do something because of the old age. In the pre-trip meetings we learned that this way of thinking is known as “ageism.” This social construct can be implicit or explicit and is more often coined for stereotypes and discrimination against the elderly. Those of us who do not consider ourselves among the elderly group see these individuals as people who don’t know what’s really going on and who need constant help and attention. And even though this may be true in some cases where our actual human bodies are no longer keeping up with our mind (or vice versa), this is a generalization that dictates our behavior towards almost any older person regardless of their specific situation.

With every Friendship Café and afternoon we spent with the Little Sisters of the Poor, there always seemed to be a reoccurring theme that continues to widen this age gap between generations. I realized that many of the issues that cause us to perceive older people differently than our peers are out of the hands of the individuals themselves. As we grow older, our minds may become less sharp and our bodies don’t work the way we want. I learned that, as a society, we must realize that more often than not the setbacks that end up fueling our discrimination against older people are inevitable. Even if their motor abilities aren’t there because the cells and neurons are just aging, that doesn’t mean the elderly are unable to converse and participate as active citizens in society. If there are physical implications that do not allow them to stay completely active, that may have nothing to do with their mental health. Discrimination against senior citizens hurt just as much as discrimination against race, gender, or medical disabilities. Before anything else, people are people irrespective to their age. By talking to the seniors at the cafes, many said they enjoy coming to the organized events because it gives them something to do and allows them to hang out and talk with other people rather than being shut off from life happening outside of their front doors. The individuals I had the opportunity to meet with in the assisted living home were happy for the most part but miss being able to go out whenever they want and getting to socialize and converse with new people everyday. Family members put them into the facility and leave with only one or two visits a month, if that. Yes, the older generation may need some assistance when it comes to health issues, but they are still people. Even one day of genuine kindness and interest in getting to know one of the seniors made an incredible difference to their day. Conversations between the older folk and all of us college students gave them a change of pace from the constant interactions with the nurses and fellow residents. Some afternoons the conversations would be scarce between all of us, but every day they would simply thank us for the company because it’s ten times better than being isolated all day.

I had honestly been under the impression that this alternative spring break trip would be a more direct learning experience. And by direct, I mean more presentations and statistical evidence about the social gaps between senior citizens and the rest of society and the health issues they may have to face.  However, though we had some exposure to the social issue through informational sessions, we were able to physically begin to bridge the age gap in the Richmond community through the first-hand service components. Because I was able to learn so much more from this method of bringing about social awareness while also being able to participate in building this relationship, I am hoping to continue this connection with seniors in the Williamsburg community. I have looked into volunteering part time the local senior citizen home as well as going back again next year on the same Branch Out trip. Our Branch Out group from this spring has also begun to make plans to visit the group we had the chance to get to know.  Even more importantly, I have been more conscious about how I see people of all ages and backgrounds and have become very aware when I see ageism happening around my community. This experience has shown me how far a smile or simple conversation can go with someone who is experiencing issues you have no clue about and how older people get placed into a category that society leaves to the side just because of their age. Societal constructs should not dictate how we interact with other people and by advocating for these great programs like Branch Out National, I hope more people my age will help to bridge the age gap as well.