The Documentation and Conservation of Life Stories of French-speaking Elderly in Retirement Homes and in the Community is a community-engagement academic project launched by the Department of French Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
The project, which received the Association for French Language Studies Innovation Prize, pairs students of French Linguistics or French Culture and Literature with native French-speaking senior citizens, both veteran immigrants and newcomers to Israel. The initiative’s supervisors, Professors Galia Yanoshevsky and Silvia Adler, recently published the project findings in Cahiers AFLS, Cambridge UK.
The rationale behind the project rests on research indicating that social interaction is a key element in promoting the well-being of the elderly. Elderly immigrants in retirement homes suffer linguistic loneliness, since they are not proficient in Hebrew and cannot communicate with staff and other residents. They also lack native- language interaction in their new environment. French conversation with students, therefore, who engage with them in their native tongue, is seen as a vehicle to relieve loneliness and enhance well-being. In return, French language students are given a rare opportunity to practice their oral skills, and native French speaking students have the chance to immerse themselves in linguistic diversity and get in touch with their own linguistic, cultural and historical heritage.
The originality of this project lies in the reversal of prejudicial beliefs related to old age, such as helplessness, weakness, impaired cognitive abilities, and societal burden. On the contrary, the students soon realize that these senior citizens possess a wealth of life experience, language and cultural knowledge. As the elderly’s life stories begin to unfold, the students discover the extent to which they themselves are the ones being empowered by the encounter rather than the opposite. Prof. Yanoshevsky: “Some of the students, whose own immigration is recent, discovered that acclimation difficulties have nothing to do with generation, and that by looking at someone else’s life experience they could better understand their own.”
Some of these rich and fascinating life stories have never been shared before, and would have been lost but for this project. The narratives were transcribed and bound into a booklet, which was presented at the end of the project to the interviewees. Two of the students are using their narratives as the basis for Master’s degree theses.
As one student wrote in the epilogue to her narrative: “This initiative is much more than just a university project. For me, it represents the meeting between two generations of women in Israel, which is for neither of them their country of origin, but their country of choice.”
And a second student added: “What a wonderful experience I have had this year! Who would have thought that I would have been able to describe the life events of a French person, who until a few months ago was completely unknown to me? The product of our joint work will be a beautiful memory for us both.”
Yanoshevsky adds: “Immigration is a global issue and so is population aging. All over the world society is dealing on a daily basis with immigrant integration and keeping old people active in retirement. If adapted to meet the specific cultural and personal requirements of individual societies, a project such as this can be useful for these tasks.”
This project is funded by the Israel Council for Higher Education.