Hillel partnering students with senior citizens to break down stereotypes

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Grant from DOROT helps brings generations together for conversation, education

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 9, 2009 – History has a way of bringing people together, giving groups of varying backgrounds a different perspective on life.

Such is the case for University of Rhode Island students who are spending time with residents of the Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Center in Warwick. The University of Rhode Island’s Hillel has partnered with Tamarisk to bring college students and senior citizens together to discuss history, music, stereotypes and more.

Amy Olson, executive director of Hillel – the Jewish student organization at the school – said the program was made possible through a grant from DOROT, (the Hebrew word for “generations”) a national organization with a mission of fostering respect for human dignity among people of all ages. Olson worked with Lev Poplow, program director for Tamarisk, to develop the program, which will bridge the gap between the generations.

During the first session on Feb. 8, the groups discussed stereotypes, particularly those for college students and elderly citizens.

“There is a grain of truth in stereotypes,” Olson said. “We wanted to get those out in the open, and then see if we could break down the stereotypes through discussion.”

Dayna Rignanese, a sophomore microbiology major from Cranston, is working with Olson to coordinate the program. Rignanese handled student recruitment for the program, which were held three Sundays from February through April.

“We were hoping for 12 students, which we thought would be a challenging number because of the time and travel involved,” Olson said. “We had 20 students apply, and there are 16 students plus Dayna involved. Rather than having 12 students one-on-one with each senior, we had 16 students and eight seniors, which worked out really well.”

As the project coordinator, Rignanese floated among the groups, observing the interaction between the students and seniors.

“Some of the residents were not as talkative during the first session,” Rignanese said. “Because there were two students with each resident, it made it easier for the students to feed off each other until each group was comfortable and the interactions became more conversational.”

While Rignanese produced fliers that were distributed throughout campus, many of the students involved had academic background in nursing, pharmacy and human development and family studies.

“For many of the students, there was a natural interest in participating,” Rignanese said. “With their field of study, the elderly are people they will be caring for, so it is helpful to gain a better understanding of the age group.”

While Hillel is a Jewish student group, it is open to all students.

“Part of our mission with Hillel is to do good for the entire society,” Olson said. “It is part of Jewish heritage to value our elders and to do good for the world.”

The groups met on March 8 and April 5 in the community room at Tamarisk.