By Mark Choi
Disclaimer: Katie Furey is a former features editor at The Tufts Daily. Katie was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Two years into the pandemic, many have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation, with hugs and handshakes replaced by six feet of distance and smiles hidden behind masks. For older adults, the pandemic has only accentuated feelings of loneliness, as nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older in the United States are considered to be socially isolated, according to the CDC.
To help build meaningful connections across different generations in this context, sophomore Arielle Galinsky and junior Katie Furey started a new group, the Legacy Project at Tufts, which soon grew into a club of 30 members last fall. The club is centered around storytelling and having one-on-one conversations with the residents in the Medford Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. Ultimately, the Legacy Project hopes to preserve the senior citizens’ life stories in a written format, Galinsky explained.
Galinsky, co-president of the club, is a published author, whose book documents the life stories of 18 residents of a Massachusetts senior community. Through the Legacy Project, Galinsky hoped to provide other Tufts students an opportunity to foster meaningful friendships with residents.
“When I told people about my project and the book, many of my peers showed a huge interest to pursue a similar project: to talk to senior citizens and get an understanding of their lived experiences and stories,” Galinsky said.
It was a sense of regret that first motivated Galinsky to listen to the stories of senior citizens. At the age of 10, she lost both her grandfathers in just a year.
“I realized how little I actually knew about their past and what stories made them into the people they were, despite the fact that they were my role models,” Galinsky said. “When you have someone in your life who is really important to you, you almost take it for granted, [and] unless you take time to ask them these deep questions about their lives and stories, you are not going to understand … who and what made them the person they are today.“
Galinsky elaborated on the significance and salience of the Legacy Project.
“During the pandemic, when we were still in lockdown, I called the residents in a senior community once a week to have a conversation with them, for whatever length of time they wanted to chat,” Galinsky said. “Listening to their stories really grounded me. … A lot of times after our conversations, the [resident] would tell me, ‘Thank you for this; thank you for listening and sharing my story.’”
Through these weekly conversations with the seniors, Galinsky learned how to put the ongoing pandemic in perspective.
“As a member of the younger generation, the pandemic has been really difficult because I have never experienced something of this magnitude before,” Galinsky said. “But a lot of the seniors told me about how they had gone through World War II or other extremely difficult parts of life, and that this is just another obstacle that we are going to overcome together and that there is hope and optimism ahead for us.”
According to Ella Fasciano, the club’s head of media, conversations with senior citizens have the power to create a more understanding world.
“When you go to talk to the [residents] and learn about their stories, you can listen to their amazingly complex, beautiful lives which can create these connections and bridges across so many differences that divide people today,” Fasciano, a junior, said. “I also realized that not only does storytelling have so much power in the stories themselves but also the fact that every human being deserves to have their stories heard and remembered by others is really important to me.”
Fasciano elaborated on her philosophical view of storytelling and memories.
“Memory is beautiful in that it is the past, and you are now a changed person in the present and people who are in the memory are also changed, but when you think about a memory, then the memory becomes the present in that moment as you are,” Fasciano said. “When I realized this, it brought me a lot of comfort and joy to think that I can still make these moments I cherish the present by my reflecting and remembering them.”
Joining the Legacy Project has been an emotional experience for Fasciano.
“As someone who cares wholeheartedly about storytelling and having conversations with [senior citizens], I just could not believe that this community of people exists,“ she said. “Seeing this community that cares so deeply about senior citizens and their stories has been so important and a little emotional for me.“
Echoing Fasciano’s sentiment, Dhanush Sivasankaran, a sophomore on the club’s executive board, reflected on his visits to the senior center last semester.
“I felt that there is just this connection that you feel during these visits, a human connection at a one-on-one level with someone you don’t necessarily get otherwise, especially during times like these,” Sivasankaran said. “Having conversations with someone who is completely out of my age group … has been a very unique and refreshing experience.”
Through his conversations with the seniors, Sivasankaran learned to slow down to enjoy the present moment.
“I really learned that I do not necessarily have to worry about my career or the future all the time, but instead just try to live in the moment,” Sivasankaran said. “When they talk to me about their lives and stories, it is always about their friends or their family, not about their careers or school. … I learned that it is the people in our lives that really matter.”
Fasciano similarly recounted how the seniors have taught her to relish the small moments in life.
“When I ask the [residents] what their favorite moment from their lives is, it’s always the little moments like going out and feeding the birds in the morning or sitting down and watching the sunrise that makes them so happy,” Fasciano said. “Just to listen to their stories and think about those little moments grounds me and makes me think about how stunning life is.”
Ultimately, the Legacy Project plans on presenting the stories and wisdom of the residents in the format of a book, Galinsky explained.
“The book would be a compilation with many authors of all of our club members and they would each write the stories of the person they have interviewed,” Galinsky said. “In the future, the club’s goal would be to publish the stories every year.”
The club’s members have grappled with the ethics of truthful storytelling and its philosophical implications, acknowledging the gravity and magnitude of capturing many decades of life into a story.
“It is a powerful thing to tell your story, but it can also be very scary and intense. And when you are talking about someone’s life story of 60, 70, and 80 years, then people often are just worried about putting their stories into writing,” Fasciano said.
All club members are to record and transcribe the interviews to make sure that each story accurately represents the lived experiences and truth of the seniors.
“After each interview, I would always go back to the seniors before the publication and go over the transcript line by line in a separate meeting,” Galinsky said. “Even if a sentence may be factually correct, … how that sentence reflects who they are as a person and how they want to be remembered are all important parts of truthful storytelling.”
Sivasankaran elaborated that at its core, good storytelling is about building connections with the senior citizens.
“We do not want our conversations to feel like an interview, but instead, we want to feel like we are having a good, two-way conversation with them. … It really is about establishing that connection and trust,“ Sivasankaran said.
Jasmin Kuo, a sophomore on the club’s executive board, added how the club members came together to bake goodies and write cards for their senior matches last semester.
“Seeing how everyone takes their time out of the weekends to travel to the nursing home and [make] the [resident’s] days better really warms my heart,” Kuo said.
Moving forward, the club hopes to find new senior care facilities to visit and connect with, expanding its social impact and outreach. Kuo and Sivasankaran, the club’s senior outreach coordinators, are working together this semester to build more contact and partnership with local nursing homes.
Kuo hopes that initiatives like the Legacy Project can inspire the greater public to join in having meaningful conversations with senior citizens and pass on their lived experiences.
“We are striving towards the mission to bring to light the wisdom and personal stories of [residents] and bring them into our social consciousness,” Kuo said. “Just because you reach a certain age does not mean that you and your stories do not matter anymore. We, as a society, need to pay more attention to the [residents] and their stories because every story deserves to be heard and remembered.”