Long-term health effects are rapidly coming into focus from the past few bleak years, with social isolation taking a heavy psychological toll on older and college-age adults. Countering this trend is a project aimed at connecting these two generations and doing a really effective job of it.
Arielle Galinsky, 21, and a rising senior studying Biopsychology, Community Health and American Politics at Tufts University, spent many of her high school years working at a senior community near her home in Canton, Mass. In her role there, she had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of the residents, but always left her shifts wishing she knew more about their life histories. This sentiment was born of a deep regret, having not known much of her grandfathers’ stories prior to them both passing away when she was 10.
“It would have only taken one conversation to understand my grandfathers’ backgrounds and how that shaped them and then, by proxy, me,” she said. But prior to age 10 she wasn’t thinking that way.
Since then, Galinsky has learned more about her grandfather’s histories from conversations with her loved ones. One of her grandfathers, Papa Hilly, served as a 1st Lt. in the Air Force during the Korean War, and later earned his law degree at age 50. Meanwhile, her Papa Dave served in the Army and Air Force during the Korean War, and later served as the State of Connecticut Housing Director, connecting residents with resources like Section 8 housing. Both grandfathers gave back to their country and their communities, which Galinsky figures is one reason she has an innate desire to serve others, but she still wishes she could have heard, from them, how they made the decisions they did and how they felt those decisions affected their lives.
By her junior year of high school, she had firmly realized the importance of listening to people’s stories and the value of writing them down for posterity, which is how The Legacy Project came about. For two years she interviewed residents of the senior community, a project that culminated in a Jan. 2021 book, “Their Lives Reflected: A Treasure of Life Stories Captured Through the Legacy Project.” The title comes from the final question she would ask all interviewees, “What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?”
“While looking at their reflections the residents were challenged to think back, reflect upon the life journey that had brought them to where they are, and consider the legacy they had left on their communities,” says the publicity material on the book. And “ ‘Their Lives Reflected’ intends to inspire readers to bring to light the stories of their own loved ones, ensuring meaningful life experiences are always remembered.”
By her junior year of high school Galinsky had firmly realized the importance of listening to people’s stories and writing them down for posterity.
Now Galinsky is passing along the lesson to her college cohort at Tufts via The Legacy Project she founded as a sophomore with Katherine Furey (who has since graduated) and is continuing into her senior year with Wanda Schlumpf. Galinsky is Student Body President–Elect at Tufts and may have her hands a bit fuller this coming fall. She also happens to work two internships, lead the TEDxTufts program, and is in training to become an ombudsman in her local area, in case any readers persist in thinking this generation slacks off a bit.
When Galinsky came to Tufts, she found Furey shared a similar passion for connecting with older adults, specifically for preserving their stories, and the two created the The Legacy Project at Tufts organization, which now has 20–30 people on board to help. With Schlumpf they have the required three people necessary to start a charity and have successfully navigated the process of becoming a nonprofit in Massachusetts. Now, as The Legacy Project, Inc., the three founders are working to start chapters at other college universities across the country this school year.
Each year at Tufts the women chose an organization to partner with for one year. This past year it was Maplewood at Weston, which has almost 20 residential locations across the country. During the high school project, Galinsky had drawn up a comprehensive batch of questions to ask residents when visiting with them. Those questions have been condensed and are organized by stages of life to work throughout one semester of questioning by students.
Getting the Story Down
At Tufts the students and older adults met each week in the fall and progressed as a group through the stages of the residents’ lives. The fall semester was concentrated on developing a meaningful relationship, asking the questions, and allowing the conversations to progress naturally off into rich tangents.
During the second semester students visited every other week and formed the interviewee’s story into a cohesive whole, which will end up in a book to be published at a later date. The Legacy Project at Tufts will publish one book per year going forward. Galinsky was careful to say the residents are deeply involved in the writing process as well, in that they collaborate with students on the writing and approve what has been written for each stage. This is not journalism, but a relationship-building exercise that culminates in a physical book that will provide a legacy of that elders’ time on earth.
Galinsky stressed repeatedly that the most important part of the process for her is that the book reflects exactly what the older adult told the students. So every other week, the students are not just preserving and deepening the connection with the older adult, but they are reviewing the story as they write it, ensuring the finished product is how the elders would like to be remembered.
Buoyed by the positive experiences of these connections at Tufts, she hopes to expand the nonprofit to other colleges.
“Overall, it’s a positive response to the connection portion of the project,” said Galinsky. “All the older adults enjoy the opportunity to connect and mutually learn from the students, but sometimes the interview portion gets mixed reactions as it can be very emotional. It’s critical that they build up a trust relationship to match with the student.”
“Our goals for the project are to preserve the life histories, for the community and for the public. It has a wide value, there is lots to learn from these real-life accounts, and so many commonalities between the generations,” Galinsky said. “Reading a textbook can tell a person one side of the story, but hearing from someone’s life experience, say from having lived through WWII in Europe, is so valuable in conjunction with what you may have learned in the classroom,” she added.
The project has had its share of deep emotional connections. One participating resident at Maplewood passed away and the bond she had developed with the Tufts student was “one of the closest bonds we’ve seen in our program,” said Galinsky. The woman acted as a grandmother figure to the student, and when she died he had a really hard time with the loss, which was devastating to the whole organization.
“It has taught us how to ensure both the seniors and students are supported,” said Galinsky, and underscores the importance of the project itself, its ability to uplift the woman’s legacy and highlight her relationship with the student.
He found solace in meeting with the woman’s family members, which brought him a lot of comfort, as they told him she had shared stories about him, how much their relationship had meant to her, and how she truly enjoyed having gotten to know him.
Buoyed by the positive experiences of these connections at Tufts, Galinsky hopes to expand the nonprofit to other colleges, starting with those nearby in Boston and its surrounding communities. Eventually she sees The Legacy Project reaching down to high school and even the junior high level as there is such an immense need for social connection. The added benefit of the cross-generational connection makes it even more imperative that the program spread.
Meanwhile, after she graduates next year, Galinsky wants to pursue aging healthcare policy, hopefully securing a career in state or federal government, shaping the long-term care system into something that’s affordable and sustainable. Her legacy will likely be something to write about.
If you wish to know more about The Legacy Project, In, or perhaps know of a student who would be interested in engaging in this work in their school, check out thelegacyproj.org.
Alison Biggar is ASA's Editorial Director.
Photo caption: Arielle Galinsky interviews a resident for the Legacy Project at Tufts.
Photo credit: Arielle Galinsky