“Cool,” says a student with the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. “Lovely,” says a Handmaker resident. “Vital,” says another.
They’re talking about a program that has been bringing Hillel students together with Handmaker residents, started by Adam Fox, Hillel’s engagement associate, with the help of Andrea Ramirez, Handmaker’s administrative and volunteer coordinator.
Since November, small groups of students have been visiting at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, sharing a meal and conversation with residents.
“We talked about all kinds of things. It was lovely. Everyone found somewhere they can relate,” says Carol Donisi, 77, a Handmaker resident for the last year. A former dietician who has lived in Tucson since 1962, Donisi says she likes to see students involved in the community.
The students told the residents they wanted “some perspective on how we live,” she says. Although she’s not Jewish, Donisi says that in choosing an assisted living residence, she was looking “for something that had a religious background” and the mix of religions among residents at Handmaker is “very interesting.”
Bridget Ott, a freshman from Phoenix studying neuroscience and cognitive science at the UA, volunteered with the program as a way to give back to others — and to hear stories of people she might not have encountered otherwise.
Some of the residents “have really cool backstories — one lady helped invent synthesized rubber,” she says. Residents also told students about their lives, children and grandchildren, and where they used to live.
“They were all really nice. It’s just a really cool experience,” says Ott.
Brayton Person (it’s a Swedish name, pronounced with a long “e,” he explains), an 85-year-old who moved into one of Handmaker’s independent living apartments about a year ago, says Fox and the students “are very good listeners.”
A former speech pathologist in several Tucson hospitals and schools, Person has lived here since 1979. He’s grateful to have friends in town but observes that “some of us are from out of town and we come here and we don’t have anyone to call on us or sit at the table with us. I can tell how much [the students’ visits] mean to the people around me.” For Person, too, giving up the townhome he lived in for 31 years, which he’s preparing to sell, is “an adjustment.”
Along with basic questions about whether residents are well and happy, he says, they were interested to know why he chose Handmaker. Person, who is not Jewish, says he knew of Handmaker’s reputation going back many years, to when his parents spent winters in Tucson in the 1960s.
Noting wryly that “old people love to be listened to,” he says, “it’s really neat that people like Adam take the time out of their lives to share with us and let us talk.”
Since moving into Handmaker, Person also has enjoyed the weekly visits from the Jewish community chaplain, Rabbi Richard Safran. Although Handmaker offers many activities, he says, such visits help new residents as they strive “to get our feet on the ground, spiritually, physically and every other way. The quality of visiting that people like Adam does can be a vital link to building a sense of community within ourselves.”
Fox, a native Tucsonan who graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with degrees in political science and criminal justice, remembers visiting elderly relatives at Handmaker when he was a young boy. As he got older, he was active with BBYO and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, so he continued to hear about Handmaker’s role in the community.
He felt that visiting Handmaker residents was a way not only for students to give back, “but where I can be personally involved.”
“I think it’s important, no matter what people are doing, whatever profession, that they’re finding ways to help repair the world, and I think part of that is to take care of the elderly,” he says. While Handmaker is Jewish-affiliated, he wanted students to know “Handmaker is for everyone,” adding that it has “really good policies for those who can’t afford it — they don’t kick anyone out; there’s a foundation within Handmaker to help people pay.”
Along with listening to residents’ stories, he and the students enjoyed being asked about their lives. “I think that dialogue helped close a gap between generations. This is part of building the community closer.”
Over the next month, as students buckle down to final papers and exams, Fox, whose one-year fellowship ends in May, plans to continue visiting at Handmaker.
Among others, he’s connected with Person. “Brayton has an upbeat, positive perspective. He finds ways to appreciate where he’s living, and he makes the most of it. I want to be like that when I’m his age,” says Fox.
Handmaker’s Ramirez notes that she was glad to have “our future leaders coming in and seeing what Handmaker is about,” speculating that there might even be some future board members among the students.
Speaking with residents after the visits, Ramirez found they “were ecstatic to sit and talk” with the students. But the students also benefited. Fox, she recalls, was thoroughly impressed with 100-year-old Gertrude Shankman and all that she remembers of history. “He walked out of here just saying, ‘Wow!’”