A 62-year-old recovering from a broken neck and a 17-year-old who wore the reddest dress in the world to prom are an unlikely pair. But they’re mentor and mentee, and now friends, as part of a program that aims to solve two troubling challenges: the “silver tsunami” of millions living longer and needing care, and the challenges of at-risk urban youth trying to find meaningful careers that offer the chance for advancement into the middle class.
Olga Cruz lives in The New Jewish Home, a nursing home in New York City’s Upper West Side. She fights feelings of isolation and depression with the help of Wenetta Celestine, who shares stories about life during weekly visits. Celestine, like 225 other high school students from the Bronx and Manhattan, spends six to eight hours a week training to work in geriatric care.
Cruz helps her understand what it is like to grow old and what elders in a long-term care facility need.
“She’s wonderful and loving; I want to hug and squeeze her like a grandma,” Celestine says of Cruz. “If I can’t tell my mom something, I can tell her.”
With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, and the population of elderly people expected to more than double by 2050, well-trained caregivers are already scarce. And they’re becoming even harder to find, with growth slowing in the primary pool of such workers: women ages 25 to 64.
Back in 2006, The New Jewish Home had trouble hiring certified nursing assistants (CNAs) for residents in its facilities in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y. Meanwhile, the graduation rates of many high schools in the Bronx and Manhattan was 40 to 60 percent; few students went on to college.
With the help of private, city and federal grants and a curriculum from nearby Columbia University Teachers College, the Geriatric Career Development (GCD) program introduced 20 students to eldercare.
GCD isn’t just about finding people to take vital signs, empty bedpans and bathe the elderly. Its larger aim is to provide struggling teens with the skills and jobs that make it possible for them to earn money, pursue higher education and escape from poverty (almost three quarters live below the poverty line; many reside in violent neighborhoods).
Without this program, Celestine says, “I wouldn’t be working to be a CNA, and I’d probably not know CPR. I learned that there’s always an open door, no matter where you go.”
Eleven years in, it’s found success. Ninety-nine percent of GCD’s 517 graduates have finished high school and 28 currently work at The New Jewish Home. Of this year’s 62 graduates, all are going on to attend college.
In return, the Home gets more than simply a larger hiring pool. Students spend 8,000 hours a year with its elders.
“It makes the residents feel less lonely, and they feel a sense of satisfaction, especially those who do not have family around,” says John Cruz, director of the program. “It makes them feel young again, alive again.”
Research shows that both young people and the elderly gain when participating in programs like GCD. A recent Stanford University report called for “intergenerational engagement,” citing particular benefits for underprivileged youth.
Today, similar programs exist in Maryland, through the High School Health Education Foundation, and via the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) model, where students can enroll in a six-year-long program that includes job training, a no-cost associate degree and employment that’s all but guaranteed.
Demand for the GCD program is high — each year about 200 students (mostly African American or Latino) apply for 100 spots. Most start as sophomores and spend the next three years learning how to care for elderly patients. Students can earn $11 an hour during a nine-week-long internship at the Home when they are seniors.
Participants receive tutoring help and assistance on how to study for the SAT and how to write resumes and cover letters, among other topics. They also receive counseling on college selection and are taken on campus visits.
About 80 percent continue their medical education by receiving nursing assistant certification via Lehman College (The New Jewish Home covers the cost for each student’s certification course), and some become certified phlebotomists, EKG technicians, medical coders or patient care technicians.
Kayla Rivas, 17, and Joanne Langer, 91, chose each other because they both like to sing.
“It was like love at first sight,” Rivas says. Langer explains that they enjoy “anything except rock and roll,” before she croons her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?”
“I feel like she’s like a grandma for me. I always come to her for advice and comfort. When I told her about wanting to go to college she always motivates me, and gives me hugs and kisses,” Rivas says.
Other pairs share similar sentiments. Jaileen Morales, 18, says that without Mizue Fujimoto, 67, she’d likely be struggling more and planning to stay local after high school, instead of going to the State University of New York in Old Westbury, where she plans to study biology.
Just as important, Fujimoto helps Morales, who was raised by her grandmother, have a better relationship with the elderly.
The New Jewish Home has extended its program to people ages 18 to 24, who have dropped out of school or are not currently working. After three months’ of training, participants become certified home health aides, a position that does not require a high school diploma and pays a median hourly wage of $10.87.
Half of all home aides live in households that receive welfare or food stamps and other public benefits. Because of this, the program encourages graduates to earn more credentials.
Certified nursing assistants fare slightly better, earning a national median of $11.68 per hour, compared to $12.81 for patient care technicians and $16.92 for medical coders. While some of these jobs may not boost a worker into the middle class, they can further his or her healthcare career path or provide useful income during college.
Some GCD students are aiming higher. In all, 40 percent of GCD graduates became or are studying to become doctors, nurses, physical or occupational therapists, administrators or other healthcare professionals.
Rivas wants to be a physician’s assistant, a position that has a median salary of more than $90,000. And Morales hopes to become a plastic surgeon.
What started out as a desire to fill entry-level jobs has turned into a program that’s creating a chance to fulfill big dreams. Celestine, Cruz’s mentee, says that without GCD, she wouldn’t be heading off to SUNY Cobleskill in the fall.
“I like to keep to myself, so I’d stay home and get a job,” Celestine says. “I learned that there’s always an open door, no matter where you go. When I see kids on the street, I feel like saying, ‘If you all just knew what GCD could do for you, even if you’ve not finished high school. This is like a change.’”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 530 GCD students have finished high school and 75 of this year’s class is going to college. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.