In a virtual ceremony, the MIT AgeLab awarded five $5,000 OMEGA scholarships to U.S. high school students who have demonstrated leadership in developing intergenerational programs in their communities. The scholarship winners stewarded programs that forged social connections with older adults and aided in their use of technology.
Established in 2015, the AgeLab’s OMEGA program aims to foster and encourage multigenerational connections through scholarships and programming for younger adults. The OMEGA scholarship is sponsored by AARP and Five Star Senior Living.
Since spring 2020, the OMEGA program has conducted its activities virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, OMEGA has grown significantly. “The ushering in of our virtual presence over the past two years has really expanded OMEGA’s reach,” says AgeLab researcher Taylor Patskanick, who manages the program. OMEGA has expanded its scholarship nationally and begun offering programming that is accessible worldwide, including the annual OMEGA Summit that took place via Zoom on Oct. 23.
Amid the pandemic, the students who received the scholarship used both high- and low-tech methods to continue connecting with older adults in their communities.
Sabine Arndt, a former student at Aliso Niguel High School in California, led a tech tutoring program with her local senior center that pairs high school student volunteers with older adults. The program became phone-based during the Covid-19 shutdowns, which Arndt says posed challenges for the participants. “We had to teach them how to use technology using technology,” she says. Arndt is currently a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Alli Brophy, a former student of Gilbert High School, South Carolina, now a first-year student at Winthrop University, developed a program called Generations Connections, a partnership between her high school and her local senior center. As part of the program, student volunteers exchange letters or make calls with older adults in the community. Brophy says she founded the program in response to reports of high levels of isolation and depression among older adults in her community during the Covid-19 pandemic. “At first I felt nervous we wouldn’t have anything to talk about,” she says about conversing with an older member of her community. “What started out as five-minute phone calls turned into 35-to-40-minute conversations. The person I talk with says my calls make his day. It’s meant a lot to me over the past year.”
Darren Tran and Armaan Tipirneni, students at Lexington High School in Massachusetts, are co-founders of a program called the Lexington Intergenerational Outreach Club, which deploys students to perform jobs on behalf of older adults in the community, including manual labor and technology support. Tran and Tipirneni have also launched Project Wisdom, which collects interviews with older adults in Lexington. The Lexington Historical Society plans to archive those interviews as part of the community’s oral histories.
C’Lannye James, a former student at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Sciences in Massachusetts, participated in and led a program at the Center for Community Health Education Research and Service (CCHERS) called Community Voices, designed to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to address racial health disparities. The program focuses on older adults who dwell in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood that is predominantly comprised of people of color.
For last year’s research, volunteers focused on check-ins and addressing participants’ feelings of loneliness and isolation, James says, while this year the program is more focused on addressing technological disparities. Finding a lack of access to the internet in the communities with which they worked, Community Voices partnered with the greater Boston Housing Authority to fund internet access through mobile hot spots for four congregate subsidized housing developments for older adults in the greater Roxbury area. James is currently a first-year student at Union College.
“I think it’s fair to say that you are the best of the thinking we have around how to do work intergenerationally,” says AARP Massachusetts Director Michael E Festa to the winning students. “The future of all we hold dear is fundamentally tied to how the generations pass on their insights, their challenges, and their opportunities.”
The MIT AgeLab was created in 1999 within the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics in order to invent new ideas and creatively translate technologies into practical solutions that improve people’s health and enable them to “do things” throughout their lifespan. Equal to the need for ideas and new technologies is the belief that innovations in how products are designed, services are delivered, or policies are implemented are of critical importance to our quality of life tomorrow.