Project partner: Rotary Club of Shepparton South Inc
In 2018, Eva Gruen and Danny Finley reflected on how little they knew about the life experiences of their late parents. They decided then and there to create a program that would capture the stories of our older generations as well as tackle the growing problem of loneliness in our communities. This was how I Wish I’d Asked was born.
They chose Shepparton to launch their pilot program, which would see them connecting high school students with seniors to engage in conversations and shared activities. They teamed up with the local Rotary Club to link them with schools, aged care facilities and the RSL. When the Rotary Club came across Pick My Project, it seemed like the perfect timing.
'These people were just doing it out of the goodness of their heart and funding it themselves because they believed in it,' explains Shepparton South Rotary Club member David Earle.
The Rotary Club leveraged their membership base to get the word out about the project but didn’t have high hopes of getting through, so were blown away when they found out they’d been successful.
'The community just embraced the whole concept of connecting the generations… I think it sort of sold itself,' said David.
When you read the statistics on loneliness in Australia, it is no wonder the community gave such strong support.
'We started the project based on the frightening statistics that 40% of residents in aged care never get a visitor and 70% experience loneliness,' David said.
I Wish I’d Asked launched sixteen different activities to connect the high school ‘apprentices’ with aged care ‘silver warriors’, recording many of the conversations to create oral histories. Activities ranged from cooking classes to internet café sessions, karaoke and conversations with RSL veterans.
'We had about 20 students and a dozen war veterans, so we’d break them up into groups and they’d talk about their experiences,' says David.
The outcomes of these kinds of activities are multi-layered. In this activity, apprentices established a deeper understanding of the devasting effects of war on its participants, while some veterans grew more confidence in telling their story.
'As a result of the program and sharing my story with the students, I was finally able to talk to my own family about the war. I got to admit I feel a lot better for telling them. So, I thank the students,' explains one of the program’s Vietnam Veterans.
Although the program was initially designed to alleviate loneliness in seniors, it became apparent that many of the students involved were also experiencing loneliness. According to a survey done prior to the program, 64% of the students reported feeling like they lacked someone to talk to some of the time, or often.
Reversing the mentor model, the internet café activity allowed apprentices to share their inherent technology skills with the silver warriors. The students’ teacher found that previously withdrawn students became visibly more confident after having the opportunity to share their knowledge with the seniors.
'These kids grew amazingly, they were the sort of kids that couldn’t look you in the eye,' explains David.
'One kid really blossomed. At our AGM he spoke about how much he got out of the project and has even decided that he wants to embark on a career in aged care.'
The internet café was a hit with the silver warriors too.
'One of the gentlemen was 91 and he loved the program so much he went out and bought himself a new iPad. He’s using that for emails, and we showed him how to get onto Pinterest,' David says.
It’s clear the Shepparton community has experienced lasting benefits through this intergenerational pilot program. But for the organisers, the Shepparton program is just the beginning.
'We now see Rotary pushing the project to other communities through the network. Our club’s registered a business name call Gen Connection, so we’re now rebadging I Wish I’d Asked as a program to go right through Victoria,' says David.
A large portion of the Pick My Project funding contributed to the I Wish I’d Asked website, which serves as a video, image and audio library of the many piloted activities. Moreover, the website contains an extensive list of resources available to schools and other organisations looking to connect generations.
'If people see the website and go "wow that’s amazing," it’s not that difficult to initiate in their own community,' David says.
Under its new guise of Gen Connection, we’re expecting to see this sustainably built model improve the lives of many people in communities across the state, and the country.