For more than a year, nursing homes and assisted living centers have been mostly closed to visitors. But with a little help from technology and support from staff inside Canterbury Village in West Orange, New Jersey, Montclair State students have been making a difference throughout the spring by connecting with seniors with weekly video calls.
In normal times, students in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies meet with seniors to talk about healthy eating. But with precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic preventing visits, the students and seniors at Canterbury Village Assisted Living engaged as “video pals.”
On May 18, the students and the seniors met in person for the first time, an emotional moment marking a milestone in pandemic recovery. “It was as if we were lifelong friends,” says junior Gregory Carmona.
Carmona and senior Christina Chagaris – both Nutrition and Food Science majors with a concentration in Dietetics – were paired with retired U.S. Army mapmaker, John Zbozen Jr., who shared stories of his work and travels throughout the country and world, his birthplace of Paterson, New Jersey, and the garden he left behind when he needed assistance and moved to Canterbury Village.
“John has given me tremendous insight into his life throughout the semester,” Carmona says. “His spirit and personality are as big as life.”
Associate Professor Lauren M. Dinour arranged the video sessions as part of the Applied Community Nutrition class, but it was soon clear that the calls would go beyond food and nutrition by providing a welcomed and important social connection during COVID-related isolation, Dinour says. “Through the sharing of stories, students are learning about the role of one’s circumstances – family, culture, geography, health – in shaping food choices and eating behaviors over the life course, while serving a local community hard-hit by the pandemic.”
Conversations covered everything from teaching each other words in their first language to sharing family recipes. During their final virtual visit, Zbozen teased Carmona, “You got a haircut. You look good,” his laughter and smile filling the screen.
Zbozen shared with students the audio books he’s been listening to, a biography on the writer Robert Brynes and the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. “I’m getting educated!” Zbozen says.
During the in-person visit outdoors in the garden, the students presented customized recipe books. “John joyfully approved of his childhood foods that we included, kielbasa and pierogies,” Carmona says.
Jennifer Daclan, director of Therapeutic Activities at the assisted living facility, says “the Canterbury Village residents expressed how passionate they were of the learning experience – how food, nutrition, culture and recipes all intertwine and go hand-in-hand. It also brought back many fond memories as the residents would reminisce years down memory lane in the kitchen and beyond.”
Chagaris says part of the experience was academic, “learning how to be more comfortable conducting an interview, and counseling skills such as motivational interviewing, asking open-ended questions and becoming comfortable with creating space to allow the interviewee to say all they would like to and go through their thought processes.”
“But more importantly,” Chagaris says, “this experience taught me about the importance of having a community and support system, especially in later years, but also in general, to be able to discuss topics and viewpoints that may be different throughout generations. It re-emphasized for me the importance of learning about cultural aspects of food and how those traditions are passed on through generations.”
“I’m going to miss our discussions now that it’s over.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
You May Also Like: For the Greater Good