Socialization among generations can decrease loneliness and promote longevity for all
“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation.” – Margaret Mead
Age segregation has become the norm in America today. We divide up our communities and our activities by age – young people in schools, older people alone at home or in retirement communities or facilities, while young and middle-aged adults tend to cluster at offices and work sites. As a result of these age-restrictive environments, there is little interaction between generations. Even our neighborhoods are predominantly young or old.
In a recent Generations United & Eisner Foundation survey of adults nationwide, more than half the respondents (53 percent) said that aside from family members, they rarely spent time with people much older or younger than they are. 1
The survey, which was conducted online earlier this year with over 2000 U.S. adults, found that 93% of those surveyed felt children and youth could benefit from building relationships with elders in their communities. An almost equal number (91%) felt that elders could benefit from these multi-generational relationships as well. A large number of respondents (77%) wished there were more opportunities in their own communities for different age groups to meet and interact.
With the aging of America and baby boomers booming into their senior years, we are living longer than ever. Centenarians are the fastest growing segment of our population. In fact, never before in the history of the world have we had this many people live this long who are this well-educated, who are this capable, and who have this much to offer. Many older adults today are better educated, healthier, and more able than elders of past generations, and clearly can be a tremendous resource.
Social scientists say that age segregation also gives rise to ageism (discrimination and misunderstanding about older and younger people) and that there is a missed opportunity for the young and old to serve one another and their communities. With their careers winding down and basic needs met, many seniors are looking to contribute to the public good. But too often, there’s no clear path for them to follow.
With the changing dynamic of the family structure and the economic realities (both parents working and/or single parent homes) parents are often stressed and strained and simply not available. As a result, many children and youth struggle both academically and emotionally, and could benefit from tutoring and mentoring—which elders could provide. Vice a versa, young people could also be mobilized to help elders, particularly those who are isolated and lonely.
The Health Benefits of Socialization
While there are clearly societal and community benefits to intergenerational socialization, the physical and mental health benefits are also significant. There is mounting evidence that socialization can make your brain more resilient to the early signs of dementia, as well as slow the aging process and promote healthy longevity in our senior years. Research shows that people with more social support tend to live longer than those who are more isolated. 3 Social engagement is also associated with a stronger immune system (a better defense against colds, flu, and other health risks) and it can also boost feelings of well-being and decrease feelings of depression.
Scientists have now linked loneliness to depression, cognitive decline, high blood pressure and other ailments. People who connect with others generally perform better when tested for memory retention and cognitive skill. Active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections consistently report being less depressed, better physical health, improved brain health and higher degrees of life satisfaction. They tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future.
In the survey, nearly half of the elders reported feeling occasional loneliness; 19 percent reported frequent loneliness. Studies show that when isolated elders experience regular visits from young people, their loneliness seems to ease up and their overall health seems invigorated. It can pull them out of isolation and loneliness, giving them a “purpose” in life again. Children can also help older people, particularly those facing health challenges or other losses, see the world anew again, through a child’s eyes. At the same time, these younger visitors can benefit from the interaction in many ways as well.
Research shows children need four to six involved, caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. Older adult mentors can make a significant difference in a child’s life enhancing a child’s skill level as well as building self-esteem, confidence and emotional stability. One study showed that when a child is mentored by an adult, they are 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol and 52% less likely to skip school.
While many factors influence a longer, healthier lifespan (diet, exercise, mental challenge), research continues to confirm that building social connections can improve mood and outlook on life. Socialization and intergenerational connections can make a big difference — not only for how long we live, but how well we live.
Promoting Healthy Longevity
As we strive to become a world that values and engages all generations, intergenerational collaboration can be a catalyst in bringing single-age focused groups together and promoting healthier lives at all ages. There can also be a more robust back-and-forth reciprocity between all generations than exists today with elders supporting younger adults and children and younger adults and children supporting elders. And it’s starting to happen. Public and private sectors around the country are creating intergenerational programs, helping kids get the attention they need, and helping elders find purpose and connection.
The San Diego County government has declared age integration a core community value; a team of five “intergenerational coordinators” have spawned dozens of programs that mobilize elders on behalf of struggling kids. One involves a crew of about ten elders who live on the campus of San Pasqual Academy, a boarding school for foster teens. The “grandparents” pay below-market rent in return for their commitment to helping the kids. One senior is a painter and sculptor who collaborates with students on art projects and takes them to museums, plays and poetry slams off campus.
An organization in the New York City area called DOROT has over 7,000 volunteers — children, teens, and young adults – whom they mobilize to serve isolated elders. Volunteers visit with the same homebound elder every week; others deliver holiday packages, make birthday cards for them, and escort them to museums and movies.
Many of the youngest Americans attend daycare. So do many of the oldest. What if kids and elders who needed care during the day spent this time together rather than apart? They do at the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee. Each of the center’s two campuses – one serving preschoolers and one serving frail or isolated elders – provide an intergenerational activity or class twice a day, as well as many opportunities for more casual interaction. One resident who has been disabled for more than a decade due to multiple sclerosis credits St. Ann’s with lifting her out of depression. Rather than spending time home alone, she’s now surrounded by friends of all ages, playing cards and games, taking walks. It makes her “want to get up in the morning.”
Even if seniors don’t have access to such programs, there are other ways to engage and promote socialization on an individual basis: use Skype or Facetime to connect with family and friends; walk through your neighborhood and make a point of stopping to say hello to people you meet; sign up for a class at the local recreation center, library, or college; volunteer at a favorite charity organization or participate in a neighborhood or community group.
To learn more about how social engagement promotes healthy aging, check out our recent article here: http://homecareassistance.com/blog/science-social-engagement-healthy-aging.