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CEDAR FALLS — It’s 8 a.m. on a Thursday, and the College Square Hy-Vee is buzzing.

People get coffee from nearby carafes and have a seat at one of the round tables outside the grocery store’s Market Grille. The group at the table nearest the booths comes here at 8 a.m. six days a week. The group of men at the other round table — many from the Cedar Falls High School Class of 1965 — begins to filter in an hour later, and other gatherings set up at other tables.

The regular groups have been coming for so long they predate the building — it used to be next door. They even had a say in how the dining room is set up.

“Every manager that (is hired at Hy-Vee), that’s the first thing we say: The round tables stay,” said Mae McCunniff. She said the shape of them makes it easier for conversations.

McCunniff, a Deere and Co. retiree, and her husband, C.J., have been coming here for years for coffee and conversation.

“I’ve only been coming for 17 years,” she said, prompting laughs from the group.

“It takes a while to solve the problems of the world, you know. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Lynette Banks, who comes with her husband, Harry, both avid cyclists.

The group of retired adults has changed over the years — people stop coming, move away, move to a retirement home or pass on. So the group gets tighter by default.

But in the past few weeks, they’ve gotten to know Katie Wempen, a 21-year-old University of Northern Iowa senior who has been dropping in on Thursday mornings.

“You’re drinking water today?” asks Banks, teasing Wempen, who also works at the store’s Starbucks, as she pulls up a chair with a clear travel mug.

“Oh, shut up,” Wempen replies, to the group’s laughter. “I’ll get coffee after this.”

Wempen settles easily into conversation with the group, though she’s brought along a weekly topic just in case: childhood Thanksgiving traditions. But everyone’s off on tangents soon enough, talking about everything from the impeachment hearings to someone’s son who is in the same program as Wempen, to McCunniff’s hobby of learning to fold dollar bills into origami to give to her grandchildren as gifts.

“Do you go on Pinterest?” Wempen asks.

“I have, but then I get too many ideas,” McCunniff replies.

Wempen, along with UNI graduate student Glynis Worthington, have been sitting down to coffee with the Hy-Vee regulars for a few weeks now. Their idea is to encourage more UNI students to join inter-generational conversations in a program they’re calling Panther Ma’s and Pa’s.

“If you look at the demographic data, every state will soon have a majority of their population over 65 — and the young people will be providing support for the older people,” Worthington said. “The idea is, this is just a little thing to see if people can talk to one another.”

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UNI students haven’t yet been showing up in droves — perhaps two, maybe three have dropped in since Worthington and Wempen began.

“We’re really isolated in our bubbles,” Wempen said. “It’s hard to get people here. College kids are in a different part of life.”

They’re not the only ones unsure about the program: Though the older adults agreed to Panther Ma’s and Pa’s — and seem like a friendly bunch — they’re wary of too many outsiders.

“In some ways, this is a retirees’ gathering,” said Dennis Koch. “It changes the whole thing.”

“My cousin works at The Library bar,” McCunniff added. “If we were to go up there on a Friday evening, what would the UNI students think of that?”

Yet, despite their misgivings, the older adults have grown fond of Wempen.

“We appreciate you,” McCunniff told her. “We all kind of have our safe spot, but I don’t think we shy people away.”

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And Wempen said she’s grown fond of them, too. She originally befriended the older folks when she worked at Market Grille, and came up with the idea for the program as a way to help others like her make friendships outside of their age group.

“I don’t have my grandparents anymore,” she said. “In a way, that fills the void.”

It’s bridging that generational gap — slowly, on both sides — that’s important, said Worthington, who is working on her doctoral dissertation on organized sports for adults 50 and older.

It’s likely those older adults will need health care and other services from younger generations in later life, Worthington said, and for that reason it’s good for everyone to get over their fears.

“It’s a big deal to start coming here,” Worthington said. “It’s one little bitty step to see how it goes.”

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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