Sharing stories bonds students and senior citizens, enhances quality of life

Students with senior

Penn State Harrisburg students Jing Wen Guo and Ann Asaah share the scrapbook they made for Middletown Home resident Richard Huber.

Credit: Penn State Harrisburg

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Richard Huber worked from the age of 9, with jobs as varied as paperboy, parking attendant, and ice man. He played football and baseball at John Harris High School in Harrisburg, learned to box, joined the military, traveled, listened to music, raised a family, and frequented Disney World.

Now a resident of the Middletown Home, Huber shared all of these details with two Penn State Harrisburg students, Jing Wen Guo and Ann Asaah, for a human development and family studies course titled “Perspectives on Aging.” For several weeks of the course, students paired with residents at the continuing care retirement community to mine their memories.

Guo and Asaah created a scrapbook of life memories for Huber. But the connection between the three went beyond a recitation of events. They deepened their understanding of each other in ways they didn't expect.

“I never talked to someone with a different religion before,” Huber, a devout Christian, said of Guo, who is Chinese and a practicing Buddhist. “She made me feel very comfortable.”

In a letter to Huber that she included in the scrapbook, Guo said she was initially nervous because it was the first time she talked with an older adult in English.

“Thank you for your respect for me, my country, and my religion, as well,” she wrote.

Asaah, who is from Ghana, Africa, told Huber in her letter: “You are the kind of man I want to have and to hold some day. I want to one day be able to say that because of what I have learned from you that I am a better daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.”

Ana Patricia Aguilera Hermida, a lecturer in the Penn State Harrisburg School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, taught the course. She said the results can combat ageism. “We don't understand each other because we don't know each other,” she said.

For eight weeks, the students met one-on-one with six residents drawn from the independent living and skilled nursing sections of the home. Students researched interventions that can help the aging population, including music therapy, dance, hand massage, and other activities that can promote health and wellness. The students presented the results of their research during the first 30 minutes of their weekly meetings with the residents.

See photos from the scrapbook project here.

Renee Thornton, a therapeutic recreation associate at the Middletown Home, said she, too, found useful information in the presentations.

In the second part of each session students lead a guided autobiography. Students planned some of the questions they would ask the residents ahead of time, with a focus on helping residents remember the important moments in their lives. Questions included: “What were your successes?” and “What are you proud of?”

“When you revisit your life and tell it, you usually pick the good things,” Aguilera said. “It brings out positive emotions.”

Asaah said their project is based on narrative therapy — getting people to tell their stories brings up happy memories.

The scrapbook she and Guo put together was touching, humorous and filled with telling details. Huber told them he had a strong right arm when he played baseball, so they included a picture of a weightlifter with an insanely bulging right arm. A picture of binoculars is on one page because Huber likes to use them to watch from his window as airplanes take off from nearby Harrisburg International Airport.

One scrapbook page is devoted to scriptural verses that are important to him. Sprinkled throughout are bits of wisdom he shared with the students, like “life is worth every breath.” There are photos of him and his wife of 69 years, Nancy, who is now in the Alzheimer's unit at the home. The last photo shows Huber with Guo and Asaah, all three hugging and grinning.

“Getting to know [Huber] was beneficial to all of us,” Asaah said. “It gave me a new perspective on people's lives. He is what he is because of what he went through.”

Another resident, Mary Brandt, chose to focus her scrapbook on happenings since she arrived at the home two years ago. She said she didn't feel like her life was nearing its end when she entered, it was just another stage. “Some in my generation came here to die, but I was determined there was more to live for,” she said.

Her scrapbook is filled with mementoes of her time at the Middletown Home and family events of the past two years. “The births, the deaths, the weddings,” she said. It includes welcome cards she received when she arrived, cards she got for her 90th birthday, and memories of friends who have since passed away.

The connection Brandt and her student, Tuan Bui, feel for each other was apparent in the fond looks they gave each other. They exchanged phone numbers and emails, and Brandt invited Bui to eat with her in the cafeteria. He happily accepted.

“At first it was just a class,” Bui said. “But as I got to know Mary as a person, we became friends.”

He said he has learned life lessons from Brandt, such as to “always be happy, look forward to the future.”

Brandt said she also learned from Bui. “You always had something to be grateful for,” she told him. “I like your enthusiasm, your wanting to learn.”

According to Thornton, some of the residents were reluctant to participate because they felt they didn't have interesting stories to tell. But they learned differently.

“This made them feel young,” she said. “All made close friendships.”

This was the second year for the program, and Aguilera said she plans for it to continue.

As the last class ended with a sharing of scrapbooks, music and snacks, Huber said he wanted to get up and say something to the whole room.

“I feel wonderful about this whole program,” he said. “The three of us are so different, but I'm so proud to work with them. They're my girls.”

Aguilera stressed the importance of the program to the residents and the students.

“What you are doing is meaningful,” she said.