A peek inside the Cohen Home on any given Sunday reveals residents benefiting from life-enrichment activities, high-quality care, delicious meals, and caring volunteers and visitors.
But recent Sundays have brought a new level of excitement to the assisted living community in Johns Creek. Cohen Home residents have enjoyed visits with teenagers from Toco Hills’ Congregation Bet Haverim, who arrive with video cameras, smiles and questions for their older friends.
Under the guidance of Bet Haverim’s education director, Emet Ozar, who is acting as the project manager, along with educator Alisa Bouer, digital media producer Ori Salzberg and the staff of the Cohen Home, the senior residents and their teen visitors are embarking on a joint project: the creation of a video documenting the dialogue and encounter between the teens and residents.
The project will feature segments of the interviews exploring the life experiences of the seniors. The also teens are taking photos of the residents and of objects that hold meaning for them.
The Reconstructionist synagogue acquired a grant from the Better Together Program, designed to encourage meaningful interaction between the young and the old. The product is a story on film, along with an artistic photography exhibit, but the process of nine meetings during the school year is more important.
The seniors and teens have transcended age barriers to form bonds of friendship.
“When taking a closer look into our society’s reluctance to preserve the experiences of the elderly, you begin to realize how much we are missing out on,” teen participant Jordan Walter said. “Why are kids in school writing family history papers more inclined to search for their answers on Wikipedia than call their grandparents?”
This endeavor is a testament to the often-overlooked values of the older generation. As the teens and seniors spend time together and became more comfortable with each other, the questions, answers and stories flow. And, as Jordan and the other teens have learned, the two generations have much to learn from each other.
Named Next Dor, playing off the Hebrew word for generation, the project highlights many values integral to Judaism: the importance of learning, the commandment to respect our elders, and the necessity of passing down traditions, stories and Jewish pride from generation to generation.
The 10 young adults, who are past their b’nai mitzvah celebrations, have chosen to remain actively involved with their synagogue and Jewish life.
“My involvement with Next Dor is one that has affected many aspects of my life that I never expected it to,” teen participant Sophie Reiss said. “When I first learned about what it entailed, I was drawn to it, expecting at the very least to hear interesting stories that would be helpful prompts for my creative writing class. What I have been getting out of this program has been so much more important. My meetings with Elaine, a resident at the Cohen Home, gave me a new perspective on our constantly changing world and taught me the importance of activism and friends and family.”
Libi Ben-Yoar said: “This experience … has really made an impact on me and has made me really appreciate the art of storytelling and passing on experiences from generation to generation. Many of the stories I was told impacted me in a way I have never seen before.”
Program director Ozar said she looks forward to seeing the Cohen Home residents each time to learn more about their stories. “In the beginning, I was convinced that the residents were too different from me and from the teens … that we had grown up in such different eras that it was too big of a gap to fully cross over. But their stories of love and marriage, having children, life struggles, sadness and joys, are the same as mine. That has been a beautiful thing to learn: That no matter the time or era, we have the same human ties and experiences that bind us together.” “I love seeing the teens interact with the seniors,” Salzberg said. “They are discovering as much about themselves as they are their interviewees. Many of the teens have shared with us how this experience has given them increased self-confidence and opened up new perspectives. From the artistic perspective, this is an incredible opportunity to create something unique. Over the course of the year we’ve seen relationships grow, and we’ve seen the teens develop into young adults.”
The Cohen Home’s executive director, Melissa Hyatt, shares the staff’s excitement about the project, which coincides with extensive facility renovations costing $2.5 million. “Our residents are gaining so much from this intergenerational experience,” she said. “Seeing the two unrelated groups of people come together on this project is incredible. We look forward to the teens’ visits and hope our relationships continue long after the project is complete.”
The seniors involved with the project also are happy.
Eileen and Frank Seidman, for example, have formed a special bond with one teen, Maddy Laing.
“Maddy is very bright, warm and loving. It is a wonderful project, and the young adults brighten our days by being here and interacting with us,” Frank said.
Cohen Home resident Dian Biddle expressed enjoyment in being filmed and interviewed: “I loved being a star for a few moments. The teens, through their questions, have gotten me to think about things I otherwise had not thought about.”
The Next Dor project will culminate in a gala event, including live music, dinner and a viewing of a condensed version of the film, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at the Cohen Home. Family members of home residents and of Bet Haverim teens will be part of the special celebration.
Soon after, the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum will show the film and photographs, along with anecdotes about objects that hold importance to the participants. The Cohen Home residents will take a trip to the museum to see the display.
The Cohen Home and Congregation Bet Haverim are more than 20 miles apart, and the project’s participants are separated by more than two generations. But Next Dor has brought them together as if they truly were next door.
Suzanne Hurwitz, who holds a master of social work, is the life enrichment coordinator at the Cohen Home.