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Helping Bridge the Generations


Every other Friday afternoon from October to June, residents of the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda gather in the facility's computer room.

One 86-year-old woman, fingers flying, types a letter at 100 words per minute. Others, hampered by arthritis or failing eyesight, dictate letters containing memories of childhood holiday celebrations and summer pastimes to a teen-ager at a keyboard.

The letters are distributed in Victoria Waller's fifth-grade class at the Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School in West Los Angeles for the children to read and answer.

Dubbed the Printer Pal Program, this exchange of computer correspondence between the very old and the very young was started in 1990 by Waller to help bridge the generations.

"I felt we had to connect children with their grandparents," says Waller, 48, a reading specialist, "but I felt first they should connect with someone they did not know and then move on to their grandparents."

Waller approached her school's educational director, Metuka Benjamin, and Caryl Geiger, Jewish Home program director, who paved the way for installation of computers at both locations. She also recruited her teen-age son, Andrew, and daughter Alison to type letters for the women who dictate. Only two women participated at first; there are now about 12 at each session, ranging in age from 84 to 94.

Waller chooses the topics for her students--U.S. Presidents, Passover, favorite hobbies, vacations. The children ask questions about the elderly residents' lives. The women's responses have included memories of life during the Depression, five-cent movies, berry picking and hayrides, and such culinary customs as cleaning chickens and keeping a live fish in the bathtub until it was killed for gefilte fish.

The two groups meet only once a year, at a June luncheon.

The students--who have also included second- and fourth-graders--are more fascinated by the program than she could have predicted, Waller says.

"They love it when I come back with the letters. The kids will get interested in certain people, depending on the connection: Maybe someone's father died when she was young, for instance. When June comes, they know exactly who they want to sit by at lunch."

As for the women, the computer project has afforded a new skill for some. More important, Waller says, "They love remembering. I feel it's important that everyone, while we're living, feel worthwhile, and I think that too often, senior citizens don't. They need to pass on all this stuff to the kids."

Waller encourages her students to videotape oral histories with their grandparents. Whether or not they do, she says, "Their parents have said there's a difference now in how the kids treat the grandparents. They take time to talk with them. They realize that their grandparents don't just sit around. They do things, and they have lives."

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