This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which created the Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen) campaign, inviting those in midlife and beyond to connect with kids who need champions.
Rey Castuciano didn’t plan to become his father’s primary caregiver, but when Mr. Castuciano spent six weeks in a nursing home with him after he had a stroke, it led to an aha! moment that changed Castuciano’s life for the better.
“I befriended a lot of the nursing home residents,” Castuciano says. “I got to know them and noticed how many talents and how much wisdom they had. But there was also a lot of depression and social isolation.”
During one of his stops in the nursing home’s cafe, he watched a video about seniors in the United States helping Brazilian students improve their English through Skype sessions.
That’s when his idea was born. He saw a way to benefit two populations, older Americans and newcomers, at once. And in 2014, he founded Table Wisdom, whose mission is to bring together mature adults and younger people born abroad (i.e., recent immigrants and international students) for weekly mentoring and conversational English via video chat.
Castuciano, who emigrated from the Philippines when he was a teenager, knew how important learning English was to his later success. After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles and then furthering his education at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, he pursued a career in biotech. But when his father was discharged from the nursing home, he decided not to go back to biotech and to instead develop his Table Wisdom idea while also being a caregiver.
“Being a caregiver wasn’t something I was prepared to do,” he notes. “It was kind of just presented to me, and I had to figure it out. It can be very exhausting and stressful, balancing caregiving with being the founder of a social enterprise. But at the same time, it’s fulfilling and rewarding work.”
And Castuciano says he’s consistently gotten subtle messages that he’s on the right path. He relates a recent conversation with Zhe “Ian” Wang, an international student. “He told me his anxiety to move to a new country decreased after being paired with Cindy [Vantine], the mentor he began having video chats with before arriving to study at Washington University’s Brown School of social work. They’ve continued their mentoring relationship and now periodically meet for food or touring the city with Ian’s friends.” Castuciano adds, “That kind of success story feels really good, to know we’re making a difference in both of their lives.”
To date, Table Wisdom has made more than 90 matches. The international students currently come from Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis University, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, but a California school is interested in placing students beginning this fall. The mature adults come from a mixture of independent living sites, LinkedIn, and VolunteerMatch. To match people, common interests and personality type are taken into consideration.
Most connect by whatever video software they prefer (for example, FaceTime or WeChat). For the older adults who struggle with technology or don’t have a reliable internet connection, conversations can take place by phone.
These days, Castuciano is planning to help his parents reunite with family members in southern California, since his father is now doing well. He says, “Taking care of older people is embedded in our culture.”
• For more, visit table-wisdom.org. Table Wisdom was a finalist in the 2017 Encore Prize, celebrating innovators who tap the talent of adults age 50 or older to help young people thrive. To learn more and apply for the prize, visit iamgen2gen.org/encoreprize.