Linking Generations bridges gap between students and seniors

Elon sophomore Kendall Quinn gives a glimpse into her time volunteering at Blakey Hall, an assisted living community in Elon, North Carolina:

“There’s a misconception that older people are past their prime,” said Elon junior Caroline McSwain. “But the Blakey Hall residents are on their game.”

Blakey Hall is an assisted living community less than three miles from Elon University’s campus. Linking Generations, the student-run organization formerly known as Adopt-a-Grandparent, is made up of students from all four years who visit Blakey Hall at least once a month to mingle and build relationships with residents.

McSwain understands some students’ hesitation to visit Blakey Hall but assures her peers it’s more than worth it.

“It’s scarier to volunteer with older people,” she said. “But it’s enriching. It’s easier to do in a group setting.”

The organization, which currently has more than 25 members, facilitates activities like craft nights and coordinates holiday-themed parties and weekly visits to simply chat with the residents.

McSwain, now a co-president of the organization, got involved as a freshman. She volunteered for one of her human services classes but loved it so much she continued volunteering throughout the year, eventually earning 50 service hours at Blakey.

McSwain said it’s especially rewarding to visit the second floor of the main building, which houses residents primarily diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“It’s hard, especially with those patients,” she said. “But they are still carefree and full of life. Helping them be joyful and happy is really important.”

One of her Blakey Hall friends is Hazel, a woman with a sense of humor and an affinity for flashy necklaces, some of which McSwain helped her make during an afternoon of crafting.

Both McSwain and fellow Linking Generations member Kendall Quinn describe Hazel as a “low-key” person who enjoys the simple things, especially sing-a-longs.

Quinn, a sophomore at Elon, finds the residents charming and loves their passion for singing.

“They are all really talented at remembering lyrics,” she said. “It’s amazing to watch. They love singing the classic songs.”

Blakey Hall activities director Judy Simpson said both residents and staff appreciate students’ frequent visits.

“People don’t realize how much a conversation means to them,” she said. “We love having people come, especially when it’s consistent. These folks like to get to know you.”

Simpson said they especially love having students visit during holiday seasons, because residents’ families often can’t make it for every holiday, mainly Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Often, students serve as a sort of extended family for the residents. During McSwain’s sophomore year, she was close with a woman named Bea who lived on the second floor of Blakey.

“She was wild and young at heart,” she said. “ She always looked her best and wore jewelry, and one time she even carried a diaper of jewelry around because she knew people wouldn’t want to touch it and steal her stuff.”

But when McSwain returned to Elon for her junior year, she learned Bea had died in her sleep. She remembered the feeling as bittersweet.

“I was sad, but all my visits with her felt worth it,” she said. “I had had an impact during the last year of her life.”

She said her time at Blakey with Linking Generations has helped her understand her own grandparents more. She sends them frequent e-mails just to say hello, and she said her grandparents appreciate the fact that she cares about elderly people even with a busy college schedule. She said she genuinely loves the organization and visiting her friends at Blakey, and she loves the meaningful, two-way relationships she has formed there.

“It means a lot to them that somebody is there,” she said. “It’s similar to a relationship with peers. They’re friends, and the experiences they share are amazing.”