Volume 17 • Issue 37 | February 11 - 17, 2005

Teens meet and learn about senior citizens

Downtown Express photo by Jennifer Weisbord
Theresa Knox, who runs a work study program for the Dept. for the Aging, with pictures of the high schoolers and seniors in the program.

By Aman Singh

“I just closed my eyes and imagined it to be reggae and it was suddenly a lot of fun,” a student said, speaking about his experience while spending time enjoying opera music with a senior adult in one of New York City’s adult centers.

Such incidents are what keep Theresa Knox going — and young. This medium-height, dignified grandmother is also the field director at the Intergenerational Work Study Program with the Department for the Aging, with offices near City Hall.

Immensely happy in the presence of kids and at home with their slang and hip-hop, Knox, 48, is currently still getting used to the recognition she is receiving since being awarded the $6,000 Isaac Liberman Public Service Award by the Hundred Year Association of New York. Knox was recognized for her work in the field of gerontology and intergenerational activities in New York City for the last 15 years.

Until she was recognized, Knox maintained a low profile in her department. Where she couldn’t remain low profile was among her students and senior adults who she began bringing together under the work-study program in 1989. Her supervisor, Mary Ann McKinney, attributes Knox’s success to “her managing multiple tasks, work that wasn’t part of her job profile, and simply her willingness to work.”

She became a field director for the program within a few years of joining the department and today handles the program with a minimal staff. Her work includes coordinating the senior adult centers and homes around the city with students from the 25 high schools in all five boroughs who, under site supervisors, visit the homes, and spend time with people many times their age.

While Knox said many of the seniors happily responded to their — sometimes only — chance at interaction with the younger generation, she was more ardent about how well the students responded to the program.

She also said that it was initially begun as an effort to reduce the dropout rates in high schools. “It was begun to initiate an interest in geriatrics in students who were not academically inclined and more risk-prone for dropping out of school,” she said.

The program began for such students aiming to provide them with alternative career paths in a field that, according to Knox, sorely needed attention and care: gerontology. Today, it has expanded beyond proportion, she said. It works like a work-study program where students can either receive academic credit for it or get paid for it to pay for their studies.

The students spend about 15 hours a week in the program, two thirds of which must be spent on the worksite, which in Knox language means in the company of a senior adult. “This is intergenerational work. They cannot claim to have worked in the field until they interact with the seniors and spend quality time with them. We don’t want students for clerical or administration work, although that forms about one-third of their job,” she said.

At the same time, students who do not feel comfortable working in those environments have the option of applying their interest toward something else that is useful for the seniors too.

“I respect the students who tell me, this is not for them. Like there was this student who said he was interested in bookkeeping since he was good with numbers. So I took him to the accounting section of the department where he could help seniors with taxes, administration, maintaining their accounts and performing accounting work for them,” she said adding that any interest could be molded to help the most-neglected age group in the country.

While all this coordination work keeps her busy, with her schedule working around the school semester, she continues to start new programs in her field even today. For instance, this year for the first time, she will be facilitating the Young Gerontologists Career Program where she will hold oral history workshops with students, conduct talks by geriatric professionals, and allow students to work in-depth in the field.

Besides all this work in a field that few are inclined to work in, Knox does not forget her own grandmother, who she says is a great-great grandmother today and still her strongest mentor.

“She is the one I am interviewing for this Young Gerontologists Workshop that I am conducting later this month. She will be my oral history subject. I never forget that despite all my work, I am still a student,” she said.

At the same time, Knox feels it was time her work was acknowledged.” It has been a long time, more than 15 years and it is a field where it is very tough to motivate people to work in, especially the youth, which makes it equally tough and stimulating. The smell of the adult centers and nursing homes, the lethargy that they represent, it isn’t easy to work in such environments. That is why I totally respect the students who take this upon them every year, because it isn’t for everyone,” she said.

Sitting in her new office on the seventh floor of 2 Lafayette St., Knox looks down on Foley and then looks at the picture of her grandchildren and daughter smiling at her from her desk. “She surprised me. My only child was there to see me receive my award last month and that was even more overwhelming than receiving the award itself,” she said.

Knox is happy in her work where she feels she is “kept young by the kids” and made to “realize my age and lessons of life from the seniors who so value this chance at interaction in their mundane lives.” She wants to use the recognition that has come her way to continue working in the same field and motivate more young people to work with the “baby-boom generation”.

“I never forget I’m a part of the same generation,” she said. “No one should forget that life would catch up with them too”.

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