Story Circle helps foster relationships between students, older adults

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A novel approach to fostering relationships, Story Circle provides an opportunity for college students and older adults to engage in settings conducive to conversation and understanding.

Story Circle is a 90-minute facilitated discussion hosted by the Center for Healthy Aging in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) at Penn State in collaboration with Joan Lipkin, a theater professional.

“The goal is to allow undergraduate students to have face-to-face interactions with older adults; spotlight the experience, expertise and wisdom that older adults have to offer; and promote intergenerational exchange by facilitating opportunities to learn from different perspectives and generational cohorts,” said Amy Lorek, research and outreach associate in the Center for Healthy Aging.

Since its inception, Story Circle sessions have been held throughout the HHD community. Plans are also underway to expand the program to wider audiences throughout Penn State and the local community. Four sessions were held during the fall 2016 semester.

Nate Ashton, a senior health policy and administration student and participant in Story Circle, said the program has been instrumental for him in connecting with older adults to further his study of gerontology, an area he is minoring in, along with human development and family studies.

Each Story Circle session usually includes equal parts students and adults of retirement age. The format is designed for the participants to get to know one another through face-to-face conversation.

The participants are given a different conversational prompt each session, such as to describe a story that involves an older or younger person. Through the prompt, participants share stories with the group, and the group in turn discusses and provides feedback on what was shared.

One Story Circle session Ashton attended consisted of four students — including himself — and four older adults. Each participant took turns describing a story that involved a person younger or older than themselves that surprised them.

“We were encouraged to look for themes and parallels while listening to the stories,” Ashton said, “such as how these stories are tied together, or what unifying themes exist between an older adult and a younger person. Surprisingly, there are many similarities between our stories, even though we differ in age.”

Ashton said he's always been interested in studying aging, and Story Circle is a great opportunity to expand his research.

“Growing older is something everyone goes through,” he said. “I want to understand how we can age healthfully.”

“As people are living longer, I am interested in how we can maximize the quality of life. I’d like to understand how we can maximize older adults’ lives, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Ashton said. “Story Circle provides a format for me to learn about this.”

Ashton said he enjoys the interaction with older adults and feels inter-generational relationships are beneficial for both the students and older adults.

“These relationships do not happen naturally,” he said. “With Story Circle, I appreciate the opportunity to have these scheduled interactions. Story Circle has re-emphasized why these inter-generational experiences are so important. The program has created a very special space.”

Story Circle is a program run in conjunction with FaceAge, a multimedia exhibition featuring cross-generational encounters, created by Andrew Belser, professor of theatre, and director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator. FaceAge is also done in partnership with Lorek and the Center for Healthy Aging, as well as the Penn State College of Nursing. FaceAge opened in September 2016 in the HUB-Robeson Center Art Alley on campus, and was on display through mid-December.

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Last Updated December 20, 2016