Marci Theriault lives outside Boston and Dylan Chao in Southern California, but for five weeks they met over Zoom for 40 minutes as part of the Sages & Seekers program supported by the Eisner Foundation. The initiative aims to connect students with older adults to “share life experiences, practice writing and public speaking skills, and build friendships.” As an added bonus, the founder and director of Sages & Seekers Elly Katz hopes it will help participants “develop empathy, diminish social isolation and ageism.”
Watching and listening to Theriault and Chao over Zoom, one might think they had known each other for years—they both laugh easily and nod in sync over bits of conversation and asides. Chao, a senior at UCLA, is a bit older than the usual Seekers, who are generally in high school, but he seems to have gained an extraordinary amount from the program. Theriault is an old hand at intergenerational programming and is eagerly anticipating another round of a different, in-person program in the spring.
At the start, (prior to COVID) there’s an in-person ice-breaker meeting for each group of Sages & Seekers, with the byproduct of shattering stereotypes right off the bat. Then there’s a speed-dating type event where Seekers bounce from Sage to Sage for a few minutes to figure out which older adult might be most comfortable for them to work with. Then commences the five weekly meetings, culminating in the Seekers penning 500-word essays about what they learned over that time, presented at a last meeting.
Time to Simply Talk
During the speed dating, Chao said his conversation with Theriault felt the easiest compared to the other Sages, with neither doing more talking than the other.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” said Theriault. “When is the last time you sat in a room [or over Zoom] with one person and had a discussion for 40 minutes in which you could talk about whatever? And you do this every week, no interruptions. It’s quiet, it’s such a wonderful opportunity, a gift, today, when you try to get back to someone and you have to text, and call and leave a message, and go through six people to get to the problem.
“And you’re getting a fresh look on life,” Theriault continued. “Seeing it through a person who’s younger, who’s where you were 40 to 50 years ago. When I see Dylan, it reminds me of when I met my husband when he was a senior at MIT. And Dylan’s a mechanical engineer [Theriault’s husband is an electrical engineer], and that was something that just stuck with me, it brought me back to a different period in my life. But I could just jump right in—we had a discussion about making house rules for five men in an apartment; we learned from each other.”
‘As I was talking, I wasn’t thinking “Marcie’s older than I am,” but “we’re on equal footing, with lots of shared experiences.” ’
Chao felt the experience was “as simple as making a new friend, being able to talk about things with someone, rely upon them being there to talk to. It’s really nice to sit down and have a real conversation with someone. Maybe it’s planned out, but the substance is still there.
“I just felt like I got a lot of satisfaction out of getting to know Marcie. And at the end to get to write a tribute to our Sage, being able to write that and feel I really connected with someone, that was just great,” Chao added.
He was pleasantly surprised as well by how quickly he became comfortable talking over things with Theriault, and her level of approachability, as well as how little the difference in age seemed to make.
“As I was talking, I wasn’t thinking ‘Marcie’s older than I am,’ but ‘we’re on equal footing, with lots of shared experiences.’ ”
“There is a 50-year age difference between Dylan and myself. But age never bothers me anymore,” said Theriault. “I just found it so easy to talk to Dylan … we laughed; he was quiet for about one minute. Then the next minute he was like a flower, opening up. Every week I couldn’t wait for the day to come.”
And Chao was rightfully impressed with Theriault’s level of investment and recall—he’d tell her about something happening in his life one week and the next she’d check back in on that conversation. “There are people I know in person who don’t care as much,” he added.
Sages & Seekers also helped Chao get back into the swing of having conversations post-pandemic. “On the mental side,” as he called it, talking to Theriault psychologically prepared him to better appreciate the conversations he had with people in general.
“Until you do it, it’s hard to explain,” said Theriault. “My world is usually people my age, or my grandchildren, and this is a wonderful way to begin to understand different kinds of people—races, nationalities, genders, whatever their story is—to sit down and have conversations, it allows you to have a whole different take on the world!”
Or as Chao put it, “There is no other time where this will happen where you can talk to someone every week, with no preconceptions of how it’ll go or what you’ll talk about.”
Alison Biggar is ASA's Editorial Director.