Alexis Bentz knows all the stereotypes —older people are supposedly cranky, not interested in technology or the other things the young are interested in. And teenagers are rude and all they want to do is text all day.
She’s not having any of it. “Seniors have a lot to offer teenagers and vice versa,” she says.
She’s spent a quarter of her life showing that’s true.
Alexis, 16, founded the Generations Together Club at Wootton High School in Rockville. Each month she and as many as 20 club members visit assisted living residents at the Village at Rockville retirement community.
“We do art projects, play board games. With others we just say ‘hello,’” she says.
They also talk — and listen. “We talk to them about their life story,” she adds. “They have so much life wisdom and there’s so much to learn. Being able to learn about it is the most special thing.”
Alexis ran a similar club when she attended Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville. That group still exists and she helps advise it.
“She’s extremely passionate about what she believes in,” says Leah Bradley, assistant director of the Jewish Council for the Aging’s Heyman Interages Center. When Bradley was putting together a youth advisory committee for the agency’s intergenerational programming, she tapped Alexis.
When JCA was planning a workshop at Frost, Alexis connected Bradley with her contacts. “She’s articulate and organized,” Bradley says.
In an interview, Alexis answered questions thoughtfully. At her side was a binder with all her correspondence. She had also prepared a resume of her intergenerational activities and a printed list of 32 columns she has written for the Beacon, the Washington-area monthly for people age 50 and older.
Alexis sent Stuart Rosenthal, the Beacon’s publisher, a letter in 2014, proposing the column, now called “Generations Together.”
“My name is Alexis Bentz. I am twelve years old and a student at Robert Frost Middle School. … I am writing to you because … I enjoy solving problems. Right now I feel a large problem is the expanding gap between the older and younger generations. I have desired to bridge the gap for quite some time … and now I am ready to take action.”
“I was thinking that this is quite impressive,” Beacon Managing Editor Barbara Ruben says of first impression of Alexis’ proposal. “That a 12-year-old is interested in a seniors’ publication and with interacting with seniors. But she has a real affinity for older adults.”
The topics of her columns suggest that, despite generational differences, despite stereotypes, teenagers and seniors have a lot in common. An early column was called “Lack of Control: What Old and Young Share.”
“Technology takes its toll on young and old,” she wrote another time. “Driving can be risky for teens and seniors.” “Scams target both teens and older adults.”
In a recent column, Alexis wrote about a group of topics that she thought might be unfamiliar or confusing to some older readers: transgender, gender identification and no gender at all. After explaining that sex refers to “a definite characteristic, based on biology,”
she asks, “Why must we identify as a specific gender?”
She wrote that she hoped the topic would generate discussions between generations.
“I try to write about hot-button issues,” she says. “Transgender is a more recent concept and for older adults there wasn’t as much publicity about it. It’s very important to think about and have that heavy discussion. Communication between the generations is a key aspect of connection.”
Ruben says Alexis’ approach is beneficial. “Grandparents look at grandchildren almost as alien creatures that they have nothing in common with,” she says. “Alexis is showing commonalities.”
She seems to pull topics to write about out of the air. “Some come from life. Sometimes I’ll be hanging around with my grandparents” and a topic will come up — like computer scams, or the fact that older adults can be interns as well as young people.
Her maternal grandparents, Sue and Larry Jeweler, live two minutes away from Alexis. She credits her close relationship with them for her fervor for connecting her generation to theirs.
She wants to expand Generations Together to other high schools and enhance the interactions by matching teens and seniors by interests. “But the main goal is to bridge the gap,” she says.
What does she envision for herself after high school? Without missing a beat, she says, “For a career, probably something in the humanities. In STEM I would be miserable.” Psychology is an interest. “I love mysteries and I feel psychology is like a mystery.”
Or maybe law.
All her extolling the life stories of older people doesn’t mean that teenagers don’t have life stories of their own. Alexis cast hers into “realistic fiction to encapsulate my middle school journey” and is working with a literary agent on the resulting novel.
“Whenever I thought I couldn’t talk to a person, I would read,” she says. “I’d try to find a character I felt was talking to me. Why can’t I provide that for someone else?”