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Dancing Through the Ages

Occupational Therapy Meets Intergenerational Education

October 15, 2014

So reports Chaya Stern, a second-year Occupational Therapy (OT) student at Touro College School of Health Sciences in New York, from her first meeting with elderly Holocaust survivors at the East Midwood Jewish Center.

As part of their mandatory OT 405 Gerontology course, second-year Occupational Therapy students are required to attend an intergenerational service learning program. Chaya Stern fulfilled this requirement by participating in the Nazi Victim Services program, an initiative organized by the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA) in combination with Selfhelp Community Services, the latter of which currently prides itself on caring for more Holocaust survivors than any other organization in North America.

After participating in the Nazi Victim Services program, Stern wrote a reflective report on her experience, in which she describes the impact this program had on her approach to the elderly. Though Stern expected her meetings to be educational and informative, she didn’t realize just how powerful it would be. As her professor, Virginia E. Crippen, says, “Intergenerational meetings…contribute so much to the educational process of occupational therapists. Chaya Stern catches the true essence of [these] meetings.”

Read an excerpt of her report to find out why.

August 21, 2014

How do you stay so healthy and ‘with-it?’” I asked 80-something-year-old Beth. “It’s a positive attitude,” she says. “Yesterday is gone, you can’t do anything about it, but you can plan for tomorrow.” Coming from a Holocaust survivor who lost so much during the warin addition to her husband and only child after the warthese words had a powerful effect on me. In fact, spending time with the participants of the Nazi Victim Project Self-help program was powerful, inspiring, and enlightening. I didn’t think it would be. While I am fascinated by survivors and consider myself fairly well-read on the Holocaust, I don’t always feel comfortable with the elderly. I anticipated spending three hours with cognitively- and physically-challenged old men and women whom I would struggle to interact with, while trying not to infantilize them. My experience on Thursday, August 21 at the East Midwood Jewish Center was completely different than I had imagined.

Abraham, Anne, Hannah, Beth, Sam, and Fay share a table whenever they get together. They are all from Poland and speak Yiddish to each other. They were delighted that I speak Yiddish as well, and that is how the conversation commenced. We talked about politics, school, volunteer work, and our children. I was endlessly wished well in the fashion of any stereotypical Jewish grandmother anywhere. There was no hate, bitterness, or regret; if Hitler was mentioned, he was dismissed. He tried to destroy a nation, yet that nation had risen from the rubble and rebuilt their lives stronger than ever. The men and women at my table are parents and grandparents. And they are proud. Proud of where they came from and proud of what they have done.

Abraham grew up in an ultra-orthodox family in Poland. His entire town spoke Yiddish, and he was the top learner in his class. At fifteen, Abraham was sent to a concentration camp together with his father and five brothers. His father was sent to death and Abraham was sent to work. At their parting his father said, “There is one commandment that comes with an explicit reward: honor your father and mother and you will live a long life.” By the end of the war, three brothers remained alive, and Abraham was among them. Soon after liberation, Abraham made his way to Israel and joined the army just in time to train as a “tankist” in the War of Independence. Abraham’s eyes sparkle as he recalls the shelling and shooting. He remembers the exact hour when the announcement was made that they had captured the city. At this point in his story, the keyboardist begins to play and Abraham asks Beth to dance. As I watch them waltz professionally across the dance floor, I can easily visualize Abraham as a young man. Though his body has aged, his spirit is still the same. He just wears his pants a little higher now.

I join the dancers and Beth insists on teaching me the tango. I stumble over my feet and she encourages me to keep trying. I feel humbled, realizing I am now the receiver. We are sharing a moment we can all enjoy. Some people shuffle slowly in a circle and some people pull off tricky dance steps. The music changes quickly from polish and Russian folk songs to “I don’t want to be a chicken” and the classic “Macarena.” As I leave the dancing, a woman seated in a wheelchair beckons me over. She has many questions. She wants to know all about me and she wants to tell me about her granddaughter. Her eyes are sunken and faded. She talks quietly, and it requires significant effort. Though she talks about the present, her mind is on the past. While other people forget, she says, she will always remember. She does not talk about her own experiences, but there is an air of tragedy around her. I hold her hand lightly as she breathes deeply, until a small smile escapes and she blesses me with an abundance of blessings. I wish her happy and healthy years and return to my table.

Attending the Nazi Victim program has given me a chance to get to know the senior population on a personal level. It has given me the opportunity to challenge myself to overcome my biases. It was an eye-opener to spend time with an elderly population that still lives at home. At my table were men in suits and women in pearls, all dressed for a luncheon with their friends. There was not a pair of slippers or a house coat in sight. There was no drooling or snoring. There was food, socializing, singing, and dancing. With all this in mind, there was still the reality that not everyone undergoes the same aging experience. There were aids dispersed throughout the room, surgeries beneath the seemingly intact bodies, and many individuals leaning on walkers or canes.

Beth is preparing to leave. She makes endless rounds saying goodbye to her many friends. I think about the fact that one can be lonely while still being surrounded by people. Beth is literally alone in the world. She no longer has the family she was born into or the family she created. At the doctor’s office, Beth wonders who to put as an emergency contact. She tells the receptionist she has no one. The doctor overhears the exchange and gently tells Beth she has him and he is there for her. Beth acknowledges her doctor is a good friend, but it is not the same as family. As Beth leaves, for real this time, she takes my hands, looks into my eyes, and says, “Smile a lot and keep dancing; that’s what keeps you well.”

I want to tell everyone about my experience. I want to share the inspiration, the perspective, and the hope I have gained. I am awed at the inner strength these survivors possess. Their sense of hope is undiminished. They look to each day as a new day with new potential. More than anything else, I understand that this is the message they want to give over, so that the new generation will learn to do the same.

The relationship between Touro occupational therapy students and JASA’s Nazi Victim Services Program has just completed its second year. Professor Crippen expects it to be “still going strong in the future.”