Old and young hearts beat as one

Old and young hearts beat as one

(Pictured: Lola Hawkins (left) and Charlie Edgar (second from right) are among the Gig Harbor Hiogh School students who do crafts, play games, and socialize with residents of an assisted-living and memory-care community.)

What Maya Joshi started in Chicago has spread halfway across the country to Gig Harbor.

Joshi, who is now attending Princeton University, was a high school freshman when she founded Lifting Hearts with the Artsin 2020 as a non-profit organization connecting high school students (virtually at first) with residents of assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, and other care communities populated with older adults. The effort to brighten the elders’ lives started after the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing pandemic put seniors in danger medically and isolated them, all detrimental to their emotional and physical well-being. Four years later, many seniors still experience social isolation, and Lifting Hearts is still doing something about it.

Students volunteer to visit and socialize with seniors in groups or one-on-one. Creative activities such as painting, drawing, weaving and knitting, board games, listening to live music, and trivia games have expanded beyond virtual hookups to in-person gatherings.

Since its start in Illinois, Lifting Hearts has added chapters in Nevada, California, Michigan, and in Washington, where Gig Harbor High School students have become familiar faces for the residents at Gig Harbor Court, an assisted-living and memory-care community. Young and old do hands-on crafts together, chat, and simply enjoy the company.

Every get-together ends with residents “thanking us and telling us how they look forward to us coming again,” said Laura Wrolson, one of the students.

Joshi said the feeling is mutual.

“There’s so much that we as youth can learn from seniors, and I think it’s just as valuable for seniors to learn about younger generations, as well,” she said. Art and music are “amazing ways of bringing together youth and seniors of different backgrounds and lived experiences to form new friendships.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 8 million people in the U.S. receive long-term care, and approximately 1 million live in nursing homes. For them and others, Joshi said, participating in creative activities adds variety to life and an opportunity for expression and communication—all good for stimulating the brain, improving mood, and reducing stress.

Wrolson, who doubles as president of Lifting Hearts’ Washington chapter, shared the thoughts and experiences of her and her Gig Harbor classmates in the following Q and A:

How or why did you become interested in Lifting Hearts with the Arts?

“I started volunteering during my freshman year. It seemed like the perfect way to interact with people in my community and give me experience that I couldn’t get anywhere else–getting to talk and work with an older generation. I haven’t had any experience with seniors quite like it. Talking one-on-one and making art with them is an incredible thing to be a part of and is unlike anything else that I’ve done. This is such a great opportunity for students to have.” 

Are all of the volunteers students?

“Most are all students at Gig Harbor High. They’re also a part of the school’s Interact Club, which is how we let people know about our upcoming events.”

How many students are involved?

“At a typical event there will be about 8 or 10 volunteers, but we’ve had events with 15 or 20.” 

What’s the reaction been like from residents? Can you share any anecdotes?

“Our March event celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a themed craft. We have events at Gig Harbor Court once a month. The reaction from the residents is always incredible, and we have new people joining us every month. At the last event, we had a few new residents come and do our craft. I was able to talk with one of the new people for over an hour about her life and hobbies, sharing stories about her passion for horses and how that has remained a love of hers. At the end of an event, it always ends with the seniors thanking us for coming and telling us how they look forward to us coming again. As chapter leader, any time I talk with the employees, they all share remarks about how grateful they are that we can come and how the residents always look forward to seeing us and doing new and fun crafts. It feels so great to know that the residents enjoy the events as much as the volunteers do.”

What’s best—activities virtually or in-person?

“Since I joined over two years ago, our visits have all been in-person. When I first started coming to events, COVID was still a large risk, which is why we would wear masks and maintain safe distances. More recently, we’ve been able to move away from the masks and have all events in-person. We’re extremely grateful to be able to do that, because doing it virtually wouldn’t be the same.”