“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 are 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, there is little interaction between generations. Even our neighborhoods are predominantly young or old.
Social scientists say that this age segregation also gives rise to ageism (discrimination and misunderstanding about older and younger people). As a result, there is a missed opportunity for the young and old to serve one another and their communities.
Studies now suggest that bringing older and younger generations together can nurture understanding and mutual respect that benefit the individual as well as the community. Both age groups can be a resource for the other, sharing talents and insights.
Research shows that there are major health benefits of socialization, and not surprisingly, research is also showing that there are huge health benefits to intergenerational interaction – for both the old and young alike. The mental, emotional and psychological benefits of this cross- socialization can actually have a positive impact on physical well-being.
Startling Statistics on the Generation Separation
The Eisner Foundation, founded in 1996 by Michael D. Eisner, then Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and a group called Generations United are working together to improve the lives of children, youth, and older adults through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs. One of their projects was a survey with over 2000 US adults ages 18 and older, nationwide. The results were revealing and instructive:
- 53% of respondents said that aside from family members, they rarely spent time with people much older or younger than they are.
- 93% of those surveyed felt that children and youth could benefit from building relationships with elders in their communities
- 91% felt that elders could benefit from these multi-generational relationships as well.
- 77% of respondents wished there were more opportunities in their own communities for different age groups to meet and interact.
- Nearly half of the elders reported feeling occasional loneliness and 19% reported frequent loneliness.
The impact of loneliness and social isolation in seniors is significant. The demand for “aging in place” – the ability to live independently and comfortably at home while aging – makes it even more difficult. AARP estimates that 80% of older adults wish to remain in their homes and communities as long as possible rather than move to age-segregated facilities. Clearly there is a need for innovative intergenerational programs that unite multiple generations for the betterment of all ages as well as our communities.
Elders as Resources for the Young
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 so long who are so well-educated, capable, and who have so much to offer. Census projections show the number of people aged 65 and over will double from 35 million in 2000 to 72 million by 2030, reaching an historic high of 20% of the U.S. population.
Many older adults today are more educated, healthier, and more active and able than elders of past generations. They can be a tremendous resource. With the aging of America including all the baby boomers, there are a lot of seniors with a lot to offer. With their careers winding down and basic needs met, many seniors are looking to contribute to the public good, and there are plenty of opportunities.
With the changing dynamic of the family structure and new economic realities (both parents working and/or single parent homes), parents are often stressed, strained, and simply not available for their children. As a result, many children struggle both academically and emotionally. They could benefit from tutoring and mentoring—which elders can provide in the following ways:
- Research shows that children need as many as 4-6 involved and caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially.
- Older adult mentors can tutor children in academics and other skills as well as building a young person’s self-esteem, confidence, and emotional stability. This also gives the senior an important sense of achievement and self-worth.
- Old and young people can also just be friends, sharing insights that both bring value to the conversation. What a wonderful way for elders to pass on a collection of life memories to children!
- 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.
The Young Giving Back to their Elders
Conversely, young people can also give back to the seniors, particularly those who are isolated and lonely. Studies show that when elders who are isolated experience regular visits from young people, their loneliness seems to ease 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. In addition to companionship, younger generations can also help seniors with practical tasks and activities.
The Health Benefits of Intergenerational Socialization
There is mounting evidence of the importance of socialization for seniors, and that cross-generational socialization is good for brain health and that it may lower the risk of dementia and other chronic diseases in seniors. It may slow the aging process and promote better health in our senior years. It can promote healthy longevity by increasing physical, mental, and creative activity.
In fact, research shows that people with more social support tend to live longer than those who are more isolated. Social engagement is also associated with a stronger immune system leading to a better defense against colds, flu, and other health risks. It can also boost feelings of well-being and decrease feelings of depression.
- Scientists have 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 much less depression, better physical health, and higher degrees of life satisfaction. They tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future.
The Intergenerational Movement
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. These programs are building bridges and closing gaps, improving the social bonds and solidarity between young and old. It goes to reason that the more active both age groups are in the community, the more understanding and less discrimination. Examples include:
- The San Diego County government has declared age integration a core community value. They have “intergenerational coordinators” and dozens of programs that mobilize elders to help struggling kids. One involves a crew of 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 this 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.
- The Village model is gaining national momentum in communities as a support system for seniors who want to age-in-place safely. Villages are non-profit, membership organizations offering support and social engagement to seniors wanting to maintain independence. They are typically funded by very nominal dues and fully staffed by volunteers, most of whom are much younger. This network of trained volunteers and local businesses will deliver meals, drive seniors to appointments and on errands, visit with them at home, plan field trips, and send daily emails and provide a wide range of programs to engage them from yoga to book clubs.
- Many communities have set up weekly calling programs for housebound or disabled seniors. A younger person calls their new friend at the same time, same day weekly and chats for at least 30 minutes. Seniors appreciate and look forward to their weekly phone calls from a “young friend”.
How Seniors Can Engage
Even if seniors don’t have access to such programs, there are other ways to socialize with other generations on an individual basis. Today’s digital highway has evolved into a social center, facilitating remote connections more than ever before.
Yes, you can telephone or email, but there is also Skype or Facetime, House Party, or Zoom to connect with family and friends. Goodnight Zoom is a hugely popular program that virtually connects seniors and children
If you’d rather get some fresh air, try:
- Walking through your neighborhood and make a point of stopping to say hello to people of all ages whom you meet.
- Signing up for a class at the local recreation center, library, or college; you’re likely to meet people of many ages and different backgrounds.
- Volunteering at a favorite local, charitable organization.
- Participating in a neighborhood, community or church group; expand your social reach.
As we strive to become a world that values and engages all generations, a robust back-and-forth reciprocity between all generations is a start. Elders supporting younger adults and children, and younger adults and children supporting elders can help bridge the gap.
Intergenerational collaboration can be a catalyst for social change as well as promoting healthier lives at all ages. While many factors influence healthy longevity, including diet, exercise, mental challenge, research continues to confirm that building social connections can improve mood and outlook on life. Socialization and especially intergenerational connections can make a big difference, not only for how long we live, but how well we live.