Bluffton Middle School program allows students and nursing home residents to grow together

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BLUFFTON, Ind. (WANE) — You’re never too old to go back to school. That’s the case for several residents of Christian Care and Signature Care, who participate in a bi-weekly program at Bluffton-Harrison Middle School.

“I wanted to see what the kids were doing now,” nursing home resident Sally said. “It’s not too much different.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school,” nursing home resident Jo-Ann said. “I know nothing about these computers.”

Sally and Jo-Ann are just a few of the local nursing home residents who participate in a club called Community Circle. The club at Bluffton-Harrison Middle School was formed to help students connect and interact with elders in their community, more specifically nursing home residents.

Every other Monday night, students take a bus to visit residents at Signature Care and Christian Care in Bluffton. Once there, students and residents play games, make snacks, and just spend time together.

The program also allows nursing home residents to attend classes with students during the day. Every other Thursday, residents are picked up by bus and dropped off at the middle school. Once they roll through the doors, residents become students, attending classes, taking quizzes, playing games, and actively participating in lessons.

“I’ve seen the students grow in confidence, social skills, compassion, and empathy,” Bluffton-Harrison Special Education teacher Brenda Sagstetter said. “I think that the residents have a lot to teach the students and the students have a lot to teach the residents.”

On the day WANE 15 stopped by the school, we followed two residents on a typical day. Students and residents read a scene from an episode of the Twilight Zone, then watched what they had read. When the TV show was over, residents and students were paired up and took a quiz using iPads. When the bell rang, everyone moved to their next class, where residents and students worked together writing stories.

“Everything has changed,” resident Jo-Ann said. “This technology, we never had. We had to write down everything, add and subtract – we didn’t have the computers or calculators. But it’s a lot of fun. They are good kids.”

The last time Jo-Ann was in middle school was the 1940s. But she said she enjoyed every minute of the day. Her classmate agreed.

“Meeting her and writing the story with her,” 5th grader Jacob said. “That’s my favorite part.”

“I recommend a lot of people do it,” 7th grader Drayvin said. “They’re fun, they’re nice and you get along with them so well.”

Brenda Sagstetter is one of the original teachers who started the club. She said it’s one of the best components of her teaching career. Six years ago, the principal at that time told teachers to think of a way to get students involved in the community. Sagstetter came up with the idea of standing in line at the grocery store.

“The man ahead of me talked about how he had to go visit his mother in the nursing home and 4 years before that I lost my mother,” Sagstetter said. “That just really struck me because I would have given my right arm to be able to visit my mom at the time. That’s when I really felt called to start the group.”

Often times, residents in nursing homes don’t get many – if any – visitors, and students don’t always get to see their grandparents.

Over the years, the program has grown in both size as well as the activities students and residents participate in. However, when COVID-19 shut down the state, schools and nursing homes were also closed to help stop the spread. Through in-person meetings of Community Circle stopped, students put together a video to let residents know that they missed them.

With Bluffton-Harrison starting back to school on August 10, organizers said they are actively working to come up with a virtual way to bring students and residents together again.

Sagstetter’s advice to other schools looking to do something similar at their schools is to go for it.

“If they have to choose between the residents coming to the school or the students go to the nursing home choose the nursing home,” Sagstetter said. “There are so many residents that do not have visitors and interact between the residents and the students is amazing.”

*Original interviews and video filmed in February and March before the coronavirus shut down the state. WANE 15 contacted and has stayed in touch with club founders since the original interviews.

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