Rita Allen of Jamesport sat at a breakfast table at the Riverhead Senior Center in Aquebogue with a grin on her face. Two young men had just stopped by to ask how she was doing and a 20-year-old woman brought her a roll and butter.
“They also come around and talk, which is so nice, too,” said Allen, who is 88.
At a table nearby, 78-year-old Anna Capizzi of Calverton and her friends said hello to students who had braved a cold Monday morning to work the kitchens and spend time with them. She said the whole experience was “very nice.”
“It also makes us really feel old,” she joked, drawing laughs from her tablemates.
The get-together was an intergenerational program, a type of event specifically designed to get seniors of all ages interacting with youths in their local community. Such programs are growing in popularity.
“Intergenerational is the way of the future across the country,” said Judy Doll, head of Riverhead Town’s senior citizen department. “That’s the way things are going.”
Intergenerational programs can dispel stereotypes, enable older people to share their wisdom with young people and prevent loneliness and isolation in the elderly, according to the research and advocacy group Generations United.
Riverhead Town plans to convert a building at Stotzky Park, which most recently operated as a private day care, into a new center devoted to intergenerational services, providing space for both youths and seniors.
“The younger seniors, the new retirees, they’re active,” Doll said. “It’s a whole different scene than it used to be. Senior centers are being phased out.”
The town started similar programs in 2009 by connecting seniors with child pen pals, offering computer classes at which the school children provided assistance and more. But those programs were canceled a year later due to budget cuts.
Now, the town has revived the idea for the new building. Parks department director Ray Coyne said other towns, like Huntington, are also preparing to launch intergenerational events.
“I think now is the perfect time to do it,” he said. “We still believe in the concept.”
Top photo caption: Carla Chavez, 20, serves senior Dennis Balsamo. (Credit: Paul Squire)
The new center will focus on younger, recently retired seniors and children of middle school age. At roughly 4,200 square feet, it will include space for a game room, six classrooms and a kitchen. A town program is already connecting seniors to preschool children for reading sessions. Youth programs at the center will begin first and more activities for seniors will be offered in the spring.
“Once we have the center, we’re going to take it to another level,” Coyne said.
“It helps both ends of the spectrum,” Doll said. “There’s a lot they can both learn from each other.”
In the meantime, special needs high school students from the BOCES food preparation program visit the center every Monday to volunteer in the kitchen.
The center’s chef, Charlie Klein, who formerly operated CK’s Deli in Riverhead, has been working in the kitchen for almost a year. He said the students are assigned to different roles based on their strengths.
Their volunteer efforts gives them a chance to get on-the-job training and exposure to both making the meals and interacting with the seniors in the “front of the house.”
“You can’t get a better experience than that,” Klein said.
“The students get an opportunity to practice the skills they learn in class,” added Joy Graf of BOCES. “This is just perfect. Everybody wins here.”