Serendipity led to my seeing a clip about Windsor Park’s participation in the Speaking Exchange project in August on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Through the program, the Chicago-area continuing care retirement community’s (CCRC’s) residents help students in Brazil improve their English language skills through web chats.
Shortly thereafter, when I spoke with Windsor Park Executive Director Karen Larson, she explained that the CCRC’s involvement in the international and intergenerational program began serendipitously as well. A resident’s grandson, she explained, was a videographer working with the Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) advertising agency, which was looking to tape a promotional video to kick off a project with CNA language schools in Brazil. The videographer, Grant Weiss, suggested Windsor Park as a location, and Larson signed on excitedly. FCB visited the Carol Stream, Ill., CCRC to tape residents interacting with CNA students in South America via computer screen. (I’ve embedded the resulting video at the end of this post.)
The video began being shared shortly thereafter, in May 2014, a few months before that Colbert Report episode I caught. “A few weeks after [the May airing], we actually started doing sessions more formally” in a pilot project with the school, Larson said.
Almost 600 older adults call Windsor Park home, she said. “We have residential living, which is apartment homes or duplex houses,” Larson added. “We have assisted living, licensed assisted living, assisted living for memory care, and then we also have skilled nursing with short-term rehab.”
About 16 residents—“10 diehards and five to six fill-ins,” Larson told me in a recent follow-up call—ranging in age from about 72 to 82 years, participate in the Speaking Exchange program. On Tuesdays and Thursdays every week, they head to a community apartment that has been outfitted with four laptops, comfortable chairs and small tables.
“The seniors sign in, show up at the room a couple minutes ahead of time and then log on and the student calls in,” Larson said, adding that a staff member sits with each resident the first few times he or she participates in a session, to ensure that the process goes smoothly. “It’s very simple,” she added. About 12 time slots are offered each day, three on each computer. Each session lasts 15 minutes.
Windsor Park originally planned to use its business center for the project, Larson said, but staff members quickly realized that the interactive nature of the project necessitated a different set-up, one that enabled all participants to hear clearly. “The residents use headphones, but it still needs to be very quiet, because the students are learning English,” Larson said, “so it’s not like a normal conversation that you and I have, that if there’s some distraction, you could still pick it up.”