For those of us in Holiday celebration mode, it is on! This has always been a loved time of year for me. I am deeply steeped in family traditions that bring me great joy when celebrated with loved ones. Over the years, time seems to have shortened and some of these traditions slipped off my calendar. But, with determination to not miss the joys experiencing the wonder of Christmas with my 3 year old grandson, I am determined to find the time to bring some of these traditions back! Chief among them is planning Christmas parties with friends and family! Hospitality runs deep in my heritage.
Hospitality also runs deep in Hope & A Future’s foundation. I have often shared that I had the good fortune to start life in both an engaged neighborhood and extended family. It was not until I was an adult that I realized my experience was a part of a fading history. As societies become more mobile and the definition of family becomes more of a fluid concept, traditions and hospitality become more rare. I believe this feeds into the growing problem of loneliness in our country. Although things have changed, we can build new traditions and we can continue to practice hospitality. And we should, our mental and physical health depend on meaningful relationships. Traditions and welcoming people into your space helps people feel a sense of belonging–especially when guests help make the party happen.
Hope & A future has the welcoming culture and tradition of monthly pot-lucks and house concerts. Guests are asked to bring a dish to pass. And some guests show up early to help set up or stay late to help clean up. Others bring instruments and share musical voices. Each party has a theme and regulars begin to plan in advance what their contribution will be at the next party. These parties are a starting point of sharing and belonging–the conversation around the meals opens the door to building relationships. When all age groups are present, these parties rock!
The importance of intergenerational gatherings were brought home to me professionally in 1998 not long after I had the good fortune of being hired by Bill and Elizabeth Sewell to work in their home as a nurse. Bill and Liz were in their 80’s and Liz was suffering from multi-infarct dementia. Bill was committed to keeping her at home. His words were, “I cannot tolerate the thought of her languishing alone in a Nursing home.” Before meeting Liz, I was told that she had been a very accomplished woman. She was a Social Worker, wife, mother of three, gourmet cook given to hospitality, a ballroom dancer, trophy winning golfer, cross country skier and an artist. She had been diagnosed with dementia some years earlier, but over the three months before I met her, her functional ability had declined faster than her disease was progressing. Her physician wanted a nurse to work with her in her home to try to determine why this might be happening. I had been wanting the opportunity to work more 1:1 with a person with a dementia diagnosis. I had ideas that I hoped could help people with dementia live better lives. This turned into a 7 ½ year journey that catapulted me into intergenerational work. In the end, Intergenerational hospitality turned out to be a major ingredient of that work.
While this work is holistic and individual, intergenerational hospitality turned out to be a major aspect of overcoming loneliness and building a sense of belonging to a community of friends. One day, after Liz was doing better (that is another story) Bill was asked if there was anything he missed doing that I could help him with. He mused that when he was the head of the Sociology department he had a few problems that needed to be overcome. One was that people in the department did not get along well. Another was that his advanced study students often had families with them. While his students were busy with their studies, their spouses with young children were new to the area and did not have much opportunity to get out to make new friends. Bill and Liz decided to host potluck dinners at their home for professors, advanced study students and their families. Everyone brought a dish to pass and some of the students brought their guitars. He waxed nostalgic remembering children running around and everyone singing together. I told Bill that he could invite friends and I would invite some friends with families and guitars. We would see how it worked out. The parties started in Bill and Liz’s home. We did them once a week. Later when needs increased and reliable help was not to be found, we took these parties into the continuum of care setting Bill and Liz moved into. And after Bill’s death, we moved Liz into our home and kept the parties going. By word of mouth, these parties grew and grew–to a point that one evening the Middleton police showed up at our house. Three cars arrived with flashing lights and sirens. I stared in amazement as I sat on my little front porch helping Liz eat. The policeme walked up to ask what was going on in our house. I explained we were having an intergenerational pot-luck dinner and jam session. They asked what that was. I explained that it was simply a dinner where everyone brought a dish to pass and some also brought instruments. All ages were welcome, so we had seniors, families with young children and teenagers in attendance. They asked if they could look around at our “Pot Luck”. They found children playing, adults talking and musicians jamming. Apparently our weekly party was causing a traffic problem and there was concern among the municipality about what was going on in our house. The officers were surprised to find good clean fun and a sense of intergenerational community. There was a day, that as I watched a kid with a blue mohawk and facial piercings talking with An older person, I decided there was likely a need for intergenerational friendship beyond my home. I watched diverse intergenerational people getting to know each other. Some were sharing how much these parties had come to mean to them and their families. My decision to move forward with my intergenerational vision was fueled by these parties–started by Bill and Liz.
Photos of our time with Liz…
Years later, Brenda Krause Eheart (and no, we are not related) an expert in intergenerational neighborhood work came to spend a couple of days at Hope & A Future. She later wrote about us in her book, Neighbors, the power of the people next door. During our time together, Brenda and I talked about how we separately came to the notion of doing intergenerational neighborhood work and what it was that fueled us to move forward. I shared the story behind my vision and without saying Bill’s name I talked about our intergenerational parties. Brenda then shared that while she was working on her PhD at UW Madison she had taken every elective class she could from a professor outside of her school. His name was Bill Sewell, and she had attended parties at his home that sounded like the events I was describing. My jaw dropped and I told her that I had started the intergenerational parties because of Bill and Liz Sewell. I teared up and she looked away and said, “Oh my.” We were speechless–a rare moment for both of us. In some amazing way, Bill and Liz fueled intergenerational work. These parties are filled with love and encouragement and make way for intergenerational relationships–which benefit young and old.
One afternoon while Bill and Liz were living in a continuum of care setting, I was setting up for one of our parties when Bill told me he had been invited to participate in a think tank that night. People were flying in from around the world to participate. I looked at him horrified and said, “Bill we can still cancel this so you can participate!” Bill smiled and said, “No, I told them I had something more important to do that night.” He went on to say, “I know all of the people coming. They have been saying the same thing for years. I could tell you what each of them will say. But these children, they say something surprising everytime we get together! And I feel younger for days after these parties. There is no better medicine for me than these parties. I made my decision. This is more important.” Later that year, on his deathbed, Bill said to me, “Bring the generations of children together, so others can be helped as much as Liz and I have been helped.” That still drives me.
This Giving Tuesday, the Sewell story had another chapter added to it. Bill’s son, also named Bill Sewell contacted me to offer a matching grant toward our capital campaign. The next $12,500.00 donated will be matched. This match will end with honoring Elizabeth with her name on an arts/crafts display case at the entry of our planned multipurpose room. In this space we will host intergenerational parties, programs and activities. One day we will have the opportunity to display the artwork Liz did in the midst of advanced dementia. That is another amazing story!
For now, I want you to know that when we match this grant, we will have made and slightly surpassed our year end fundraising goal. On Giving Tuesday, we matched and surpassed our $10,000.00 matching grant! We are so grateful to all who participated in this! Thank you! And because we surpassed our goal, we have already started matching the Sewell Matching Grant! We are so grateful for your continued support to create the first TIIN (Therapeutic Interactive Intergenerational Neighborhood). One by one, we can overcome loneliness and make a more just and loving world. Thank you for being part of our story. We are grateful and excited to be moving forward! More on that next month. For now, happy holidays to all who are celebrating and I hope the rest of you enjoy the month too!
Also as a major PS! We are planning to run a class for people with interest in learning more about our 55+ life lease units. We hope to do this early in January. We will send out a special note when we have more information on this exciting next step!