“Intergenerational” has become the polysyllabic buzzword of the age.
The theory goes that if only young and old people spent more time together, they would all suddenly switch to living harmoniously. But there’s one thing that often gets in the way: They don’t like each other.
That truth came to the fore recently when preparing a group for a planned intergenerational activity at a senior living community in San Francisco.
To gauge their readiness and expectations, the participants were first separated and segregated into groups — one younger people ages 14 to 20 and the other older, ages 65 and up. Each group was then asked to briefly describe the other group, just offering the first thoughts that came to mind.
The younger group described their older counterparts as:
- Slow (this one came up repeatedly)
- Boring, and
- Stuck in the past
And out of their earshots, the older participants said that the younger ones were:
- Rude (most common response)
- Selfish, and
Much of the thinking and writing about the differences between the generations focuses on the unjust stereotypes younger people harbor about older people. But this behind-closed-doors look reveals an even tougher reality: Neither age group offered a single positive description of the other.
Benefits of Mixing Ages
Despite the mutual wariness that seems to endure between the generations, there is endless evidence that engaging younger and older people together has benefits for all, according to Generations United, a national nonprofit focused on fostering intergenerational programs and policies.
The benefits for older adults include:
- Enhanced socialization. Remaining engaged, especially with younger people, helps prevent the common ills of isolation and loneliness that often accompany older age. It’s a preference and a yearning, too. One recent study on “generativity” revealed that 45% of Americans working in retirement say they want to work with youth.
- Stimulated learning. Older adults can learn about innovations and technologies from younger teachers who have already incorporated them in their day-to-day lives.
- Increased cognition. Broadening social networks independently benefits brain functions such as memory and recall.
- Improved health. Older adults who volunteer regularly with children were found to burn more calories per week, experience fewer falls, and become less reliant on physical aids such as canes and walkers than their peers who did not have such interactions.
Among the benefits for children and youth are:
- Improved academic performance. Students in schools that regularly incorporate adult volunteers in their reading programs boasted improved reading scores compared to their peers in other schools.
- Enhanced social skills. Youth who interacted regularly with older adults not only developed better communication skills and problem-solving abilities, but also developed more positive attitudes about aging as a whole.
- Decreased negative behavior. A look at younger people paired with older mentors revealed that the youth were: 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, and 52% less likely to skip school than their unmentored peers.
- Increased stability. Young people who identified seniors as positive role models also had more positive attitudes about their own abilities and willingness to trust others in general.
Tips for Making It Work
Just getting older and younger people in the same room won’t do much to change attitudes and allow reaping the touted intergenerational benefits, though. True changes and benefits require planning and purposefulness.
Spend Time Together
For both younger and older people new to forming intergenerational bonds, it often helps to work on a tangible activity together: form a book club, cook a favorite meal, create an art project or performance.
A side benefit of discovering or creating something together is often that negative stereotypes are shattered. For example, students at an elementary school were asked what they learned about older adults after working on a five-week intergenerational project involving making puppets and then putting on a show together. “They are fun to work with and they know stuff we don’t know,” said one. And another student observed: “They really don’t take naps all the time.”
Seek the Wisdom of the Ages
Use the differences in age and experience as resources. A younger person might show an older one how to download and use a particular app, for example. And a senior might help forge a new interest in dance by teaching a young person the Lindy Hop, or stoke a passion for art by demonstrating tried and true collage techniques.
Mix It Up
In an effort to learn more about the nuances of intergenerational communication, researchers asked two groups of participants — one, students aged 18 to 38; the other, older people aged 60 to 84 — what topics they were most likely to talk about with their peers. The older people said it was current events or politics, closely followed by family and health issues. For younger participants, it was entertainment, then friends, then family.
Help break down the age divides by tapping into those similarities and differences and encouraging young and old to think of one another as peers rather than unknown entities. Perhaps structure a conversation about the shared topic of the meaning of family; then shake it up by urging a discussion of an issue raised by a current news event or entertainment figure.
Try Trading Places
Striving to understand another person’s frame of reference helps establish empathy — which may not only gain new appreciation for that other individual, but may also help make differences seem less distinct.
At the risk of oversimplifying, many young people these days live with increased pressures to succeed and excel. There is competition to snag a spot at preschools. Those aspiring to go to college are forced to keep that goal front and center all through high school and even before that — adding on sports, extracurricular activities, and advanced studies that will make them seem more attractive to admissions officers. And older people — many of whom were born into a world without cell phones or computers or even televisions — often feel a different type of pressure to keep up.
Challenge both groups to walk a mile in the other’s shoes. Perhaps structure some conversations about how a typical schoolweek looks now and looked then, or how and when technology has tangibly changed lives and habits.