Wise Elders project brings generations together in community

By Stephanie Franklin

In today’s world, where over-scheduled students have their eyes glued to screens, the generation gap seems to be growing.  But one woman may be reversing the trend, bridging the gap and bringing the community a little closer together.

Last year, Bethesda resident Helen Pelikan created the Wise Elders program to give students the opportunity to learn

Juniors Anna Ryba (left) and Emily Yin (right) were paired with Bob Pelikan (center) for the Wise Elder Project. Photo courtesy Anna Ryba.

about senior citizens in the Bannockburn neighborhood.

Pelikan, a former therapist, said the idea of the project stemmed from her sessions with patients, when she noticed the vital role elders play in families.

“When families came in for help support, almost never was there a grandparent or older person,” she said.  “But, when a grandparent came in, they would often have a very different idea of what was going on.  I realized along the way that seniors from this country are really not respected in the same way they are in other countries.”

The project pairs sophomores and juniors with neighborhood “elders,” residents 80 years or older, who the students interview from September to December.

The interviews focus on important factors in the elders’ lives and the elders offer advice based on mistakes they made during their own life.

The project culminates with a final presentation about their experiences at a Bannockburn community event Dec. 12.  Students can receive community service hours for their participation.

“The point of the project is to document the lives of these elderly people in the Bannockburn community,” said junior Emily Yin, who participated in the project last year.

Yin was matched with Bob Pelikan, Helen’s husband, who lived in several different countries as a child.

“It was interesting to see how being exposed to all of these cultures at such a young age determined the kind of person that he is today,” she said.

Bob said that he was able to open up to the students over the course of the interviews.

“You became close to who you were talking to and came to trust them more,” he said.  “Obviously, it was a little difficult at first, but it got easier as it went along.”

For Yin, the project has sparked a long-lasting friendship with Pelikan, whom she keeps in touch with frequently by phone and email.

“It’s nice to have that sort of bond with someone outside of school and outside of your family,” she said.

The interviews were so successful that Bob plans to switch roles and find out more about the students’ lives. These additional interviews may be incorporated into the general program in the future.

“It sort of just evolved because they didn’t feel like they were done,” said Helen.  “It just seemed logical to have the students be interviewed too.”

Overall, Yin said that the program opened her eyes to the importance of elders in her community.

“A lot of them had these incredible lives and sometimes we overlook those kind of things,” she said.