Written by

Photo courtesy of Walla Walla Senior Citizens Center.

Seventeen percent of Walla Walla County residents are age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and nearly nine percent of them live below the poverty line. Thanks to a new grant from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), Whitman College aims to assist some of these struggling seniors, particularly the men, to retain their autonomy by learning to cook, a skill historically supplied by women.

"This grant gives the college a great opportunity to help students address an important local need identified by our community partners and to do so in a creative, meaningful and fun way," said Noah Leavitt, associate dean for student engagement and principal investigator for the outreach. 

Called Men Making Meals, funded at $11,900 and targeting widowers, caregivers and Meals on Wheels recipients, "It builds on what we know is one of the strengths of our existing Adopt-A-Grandparent program, which helps foster close intergenerational friendships," he said, "and goes one step further by allowing Whitman students and older area residents to learn and share food together." 

Eight Whitman students will serve as cooking instructors and companions during the 2017-18 academic year in this collaboration between Whitman's Student Engagement Center, the Walla Walla Senior Citizens Center and the United Way. Participants will be recruited through the senior center and number about 10 per class. Men Making Meals will offer a trial run in August before debuting in October. 

Breaking bread 

"Food really connects people," said sociology major Katy Woodall '18, who has been engaged in community outreach since her earliest days at Whitman and is laying the groundwork for this program. "The skill-based component to the class also provides purpose and structure, and I hope that the shopping and food preparation skills that the seniors take away from the class will be useful to them in their everyday lives." 

Plus, she added, "There is a lot to be gained in terms of mutual understanding and friendship." 

Rachna Sinnott, director of grants and foundation relations at Whitman, agreed. "Based on my research in writing the grant, there can be a great educational benefit for college students when they interact with older people-helping to reduce negative stereotypes young people have of older people and increasing their understanding of aging." 

Professor of Psychology Matthew Prull, whose studies the aging process, extended this thought by commenting that "young and older adults working together toward a common and worthwhile goal is likely to enrich the lives of all." 

Improving society   

Men Making Meals is not a novel concept; the program has been launched in communities across the country, including Spokane. The idea to bring it to Walla Walla originated with Howard Ostby, executive director and nutrition director at the senior center, who read an article about it in The New York Times. He started an application years ago but was stalled by the lack of resources. So he has high hopes for the partnership and its potential to keep otherwise high-functioning seniors out of full-time care facilities, extending their quality of life while saving taxpayer dollars. 

"It is very cost effective for society to keep individuals in their homes," Ostby explained, yet "male seniors in particular may not have been brought up in a culture where they can take care of themselves." 

While older women generally may have more experience in the kitchen due to the gender norms of previous generations, cooking skills are key for all seniors to maintain independence. Studies show that elderly men often suffer more from poor nutrition after their wives become sick or die, leading to an unbalanced diet or to skipped meals. The challenge is acute for seniors on a fixed income, since eating out or buying prepared meals is more expensive than cooking at home. 

Making friends 

In addition to addressing this economic concern, the classes are intended to reduce the isolation of seniors and increase the mindfulness of students.  

"Seniors citizens may well get a 'shot of energy' from associating with younger individuals," said Ostby. "Students will get the wisdom of senior citizens." 

Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning, consulted on the proposal, echoed these sentiments. 

"When I heard about the Men Making Meals project, I was thrilled not only because it bridges Whitman and the Walla Walla community in a thoughtful way, but also because it centers on what research tells us works well for community development and cooperation: namely, building relationships across groups that don't usually interact," she said.   

Men Making Meals is part of the CIC's Intergenerational Connections program, which is supported by the AARP and fosters positive relationships between college students and older adults.