The sign over one “Wise Elder Advice” stand advertised “Opinions” for five cents, “Thought of the Day” for 10 cents and “Flawless Advice” for $1. But in fact, the wisdom was available at no charge—and it came with free baked goods.
I stopped by Frost Library on Dec. 13 and watched from a distance as Amherst students took turns sitting down at the two stands to seek counsel from local senior citizens. I didn’t want to eavesdrop too closely, but later I asked the elders themselves: What kinds of things were the students asking about?
“Sometimes relationship advice. Sometimes strategies for managing stress or preparedness for whatever’s coming next in their lives,” said Sue Lowery, a retired primary-care physician who was running a stand with John Magarian, a retiree from the Army Corps of Engineers.
And did they feel qualified to advise the students? “I wouldn’t say we have expertise, but we have experience, and a certain amount of resilience to get to this point in life, and an understanding that what might seem like a really critical problem, if you wait a little while, you can put it in perspective,” Lowery said. Then she allowed me to sample her homemade lemon ginger pound cake.
Magarian and Lowery had dispensed wisdom at a similar booth, sponsored by the Town of Amherst’s Senior Center, at a town-wide block party last September. “And we got people right up to the time we left at 9 o’clock at night,” Magarian said.
The popularity of the advice stand at the block party is part of what inspired this event at Frost, said Mary Beth Ogulewicz, director of the Senior Center—but the main impetus was that some “amazing students came to the Senior Center out of their own initiative and wanted to connect with our community.”
Ng Yi Ming, a student visiting Amherst from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, had heard Ogulewicz speak about aging at the local Unitarian Universalist Society last fall. “Mary Beth wanted to redefine senior citizens from seniors to elders, from a notion of childlike neediness to one of wisdom and independence. Bridging the existing divide between the Amherst town and college communities was another goal,” he later wrote on Facebook. So he began visiting the Senior Center, which is a short walk from campus, along with Margot Lurie ’21, leader of the Amherst College Humanists, and Theresa Tian ’20, who last year co-founded the College’s chapter of the Rotaract Club.
Rotaract is the young-adult branch of the community service organization Rotary International. “We really want to emphasize getting out of the bubble and learning more about the town and the people that live in the town,” Tian said. The Amherst Rotaract Club has also done town cleanups and visited elderly residents of a nearby assisted-living facility.
Joyce Yourga, who was sitting at the other of the two advice booths in Frost, praised the many activities and programs of the Amherst Senior Center: “I go to yoga class, ‘Healthy Bones and Balance’ class. I’m in a book club there. I go to all sorts of different interesting talks that they give around the year on all different subjects.” She is a person of wide-ranging interests and experience, having studied history and French and worked in real estate, health care, education and other fields.
Her husband, Dick Yourga, next to her at the booth, has lived in Amherst since 1963. He started an auto-body shop and also worked on the police force, in banking, and in radio. Today he’s on the board of the Friends of the Amherst Senior Center. He and his wife, he said, “volunteer at the Bread and Produce program on Wednesday mornings, where we gather food from all the local grocery stores, and sort it out, and distribute it to seniors who come and pick it up.”
The Yourgas seemed especially well-suited to counsel Amherst undergraduates on matters of love—they began as college sweethearts at UMass and have been married for 52 years. Said Dick, “We consider that a good start.”