ORONO, Maine — Former school nurse and longtime Orono resident Joan Logue spends a lot of time at home alone these days. But a new program at the University of Maine has connected the sociable 92-year-old with a student visitor who each week brings a spark of youthful energy and ideas into the older woman’s home, brightening her day and shortening the time she spends on her own.
In return, Logue shares her life stories and the perspective of her years, enriching the student’s educational experience and building a warm, intergenerational bond between the two. It is, you could say, a win-win.
For 21 years, Logue was the school nurse for all public school children in Orono, from kindergarten right up through high school. She and her late husband, Joe, were married for nearly 60 years and raised four children who have interesting careers and families of their own. She has led a busy, engaged life, and maintains an avid interest in young people and the world they inhabit.
“Being an old school nurse, I really like having young people around me,” she said. “Nothing I hear or see ever shocks me.”
Now she is widowed and lives in her own home in the university town. She has some problems with her physical mobility and uses a walker to get around the house. She cannot drive. Her grandson Nate is staying with her while taking graduate classes at the University of Maine. Her neighbors are attentive. Her adult children are in close contact and visit often. But for long hours during the day, she often is on her own.
Cheerful by nature, she makes the best of it. She reads. She knits. She talks with family members on the phone and spends hours on her new iPad Mini. But sometimes, she admitted, the time does drag. When a visiting social worker inquired recently if she was interested in learning Tai Chi, she recounted with a chuckle, “I told her no. What I want is someone to talk to, for some companionship.”
Logue was pleased to learn about Project Generations, a new program at the UMaine that connects senior-friendly college students with older residents in Greater Bangor for their mutual benefit. Now, once a week, 20-year-old Emma Brickman stops by for an hour or so just to hang out with her new friend.
Brickman is in her junior year, studying social work at UMaine. On a recent Tuesday morning, she let herself in the back door and called a hello from the kitchen. Logue brightened as the young woman entered the living room and settled beside her on the sofa. Brickman had been on break the week before, so the two got caught up. Logue described her 92nd birthday celebration and some of the gifts she received. Brickman talked about being home in Fort Kent, then reached into her backpack to pull out a photo album.
“Look, I brought you some pictures of my family,” she said, opening the album. “These are from our camping trip last summer. And this is my boyfriend. You’ve heard about him, but you’ve never seen him.”
Logue peered eagerly at the photographs, shoulder to shoulder with the younger woman. “Your mother looks like she could be your sister,” she pointed out. “And look — you’re wearing glasses. Do you wear glasses?”
During her last two years of high school and in the summer months since then, Brickman has worked as a certified nurses aide in a Fort Kent nursing facility. “I never expected I would enjoy spending time with seniors so much,” she said. “But I’m always thinking about my residents.” When she heard about the startup of Project Generations from a classmate, she was quick to sign up as a volunteer.
Now, as one of 14 student volunteers paired with elders in the community, Brickman said her visits with Logue are a highlight of her week. “It’s really a nice break from school. When I come here, I just kind of relax and hang out with Joan,” she said. “I love hearing her stories. She’s great at relating her experiences as a school nurse and giving me advice.”
Project Generations is informally modeled on a program that was founded at Ithaca College and now has a chapter at Cornell University in New York. UMaine social work student Chloe Gray of Gorham volunteered with the program when she spent her freshman year at Ithaca.
“After I transferred to UMaine, I was looking for a way for students to reach out to the larger community and meet other people — especially people who might need us,” Gray said. With support from the Maine Center on Aging and Eastern Area Agency on Aging, she decided to start a group on the Orono campus, with guidance from but no official connection to the program at Ithaca. An initial request in January of this year for interested student volunteers was met with a warm response, particularly from students studying the “helping professions” such as nursing and social work.
At the same time, Eastern Area Agency on Aging was getting the word out about the program. The agency also performs a background check on students volunteers and helps match them up with clients based on shared interests or life experiences. Some clients live in their own homes while others are in residential facilities.
“People often call us and ask if we have a phone buddy program or a companion program,” Terri Gallant, volunteer resource manager at the Bangor-based agency, said. While there are several programs that match volunteers with frail elders, she said, Project Generations is unique in pairing college students with seniors.
“The whole point of the program is to build intergenerational relationships, which is always a benefit and a wonderful opportunity for both the volunteer and the client,” she said. “These young college students are learning from their books and classrooms and then going out into the community to see what it means.”
Gray, who is finishing her junior year at UMaine, is heartened by the early success of the Project Generations program and expects it will be approved for status as a permanent student organization before next fall. That means it will receive a small bit of funding and administrative support, including official meeting space, as well as more structured training and orientation for student volunteers. And it means the opportunity will continue for UMaine students to develop warm, mutually gratifying relationships with area seniors.
College students don’t have much opportunity to interact with older adults on a casual, personal level, Gray said, even though the professional fields they’re preparing to enter may bring them in close contact with that population. “I would love to see this get really huge,” she said. “I want this to help break down the disconnect between my generation and older adults.”