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Life can feel lonely for seniors who are blind or visually impaired. But VISIONS, a nonprofit rehabilitation and social service agency in New York, is working to reverse that isolation.
Through the agency’s Intergenerational Program, students and teens travel to the homes of seniors to read, run errands and take walks around the neighborhood. Teens also serve meals, teach classes and assist with activities and programs at the VISIONS Senior Center in New York City.
Of course, students must first undergo extensive training to learn how to work with those who are visually impaired.
Mobility training is one key aspect, in which students are blindfolded so they know what it feels like to have someone leading them. They also receive instant aging training and learn how to use adaptive equipment.
At that point, students are sent out in pairs to visit with homebound seniors. Senior Center Director Carrie Lewy likes to keep these student–senior groups consistent for the purpose of relationship development. After all, she says, “there’s not as much exchange of ideas and transfer of knowledge if a student is seeing 25 different seniors.”
“Mr. Jones,” a senior who has been participating in the Intergenerational Program for several years, shares his recollections of one memorable volunteer.
“I will always remember her first day here,” he says. “I was the first client she’d visited and she was so nervous she could barely speak. Every move she made seemed wrong to her, and she apologized constantly.”
In reality, though, the teen was incredibly helpful to Mr. Jones.
“She was open to every request I made — a fairly long walk, carrying a couple bags,” he explains. “She knew exactly how to take my arm when we crossed busy intersections. She advised me of puddles and steep curbs. Even that first day, her behavior left nothing to be desired.”
As their friendship grew, the young woman became more comfortable and felt free to be herself, Mr. Jones recalls.
“As time passed, her nervousness changed to an excited running commentary on her family life, her school, her special academic activities,” he affirms. “She sometimes thought of things she wanted to tell me faster than the words could come out.”
This experience is not atypical. In fact, Lewy says such mutually beneficial relationships are a hallmark of the Intergenerational Program. Over time, teens are able to talk with their senior friends about things they might not normally discuss with their parents and seniors share their own personal life experiences with the teens.
With this level of intergenerational communication, it’s not surprising that VISIONS has vastly improved students’ social skills.
“Not only has this program helped me learn how to properly cater to blind people’s needs, but it has also greatly improved how I act around adults and how I communicate with them,” says a teen volunteer. “I used to find it difficult to converse with adults, but this experience has helped me have more fluent conversations.”
Clearly, teens and seniors alike are changed by time spent together.
“This program is a godsend,” says Mr. Jones. “I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Robyn Tellefsen is a New York City-based freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience and hundreds of bylined articles. Her work has appeared on Chase, MSN, OurParents, Parent Society, SoFi, The CollegeBound Network and others.