Here’s what we know. By the age of six, many children have developed ageist attitudes. Not only do they often fear older adults, but our impressions about our own aging can affect our health outcomes and length of life. Yet, when positive messages are internalized about aging, life expectancy can be increased by 7.5 years. With this knowledge, it is imperative we create intentional opportunities to bring young people and older adults together. Organized, serious and inspiring intergenerational programs give us the chance to redefine aging and build bridges so there is mutual appreciation across all generations.
In just 7 years, Americans over the 65-years-old will outnumber youth age 13 and younger. And with this changing demographic, one of the consequences is that older people are experiencing social isolation. This is dangerous as the health impact of this has been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Isolation for older, even active adults, leads to both physical and cognitive decline, and ageism overall can produce negative physical, social, and economic consequences for all of us. Simultaneously, our pre-teens and teenagers are also experiencing record social isolation primarily due to overexposure to social media and so much time spent on devices.
Intergenerational programs can serve as a vaccination against negative attitudes toward ageism and curb social isolation tendencies. When young people get the chance to interact with older adults, they have a window into the power of very special people and the beauty and wonder of being someone who is old enough to possess a lifetime of experiences. Imagine a retired NASA engineer interacting with a robotics class or former reading teachers talking about the books they read that changed the course of their lives. How about the high-school student teaching computer skills and social media usage to older adults while learning their histories and the ways of information dissemination decades before we had the internet. These activities become vehicles to turn the concept of “the elderly” into the reality of individuals who matter – who have rich experiences, an accumulation of wisdom, and gifts to share – regardless of the condition of their bodies or minds. But to have a lasting impact, intergenerational engagement needs to be an integral part of training and tools used by healthcare workers and taught to community leaders and volunteers in both senior and youth facilities.
The opportunities for uniting generations are limitless but people who work with these older adults must know how to create and implement them because there is an art and science to intergenerational programming. The “art” includes the nuances of how we plan a session, greet people and create a flexible structure for people to engage at a level with which they are comfortable. The sciences include incorporating whole person modalities, Allport’s contact hypothesis, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, and Erikson’s socio-emotional development theory. Healthcare professionals should be given recognized training and tools so they may formulate a vision for intergenerational engagement, as well as the steps to create a successful program. Organized, intentional and purposeful programs must become part of training for workers, volunteers and professionals across healthcare organizations to have a meaningful impact. By strengthening intergenerational engagement, we will not just help older individuals have a more vibrant life but we will weave older adults back into the generational fabric of our society and help our young people grow up and grow old well.
Andrea J. Fonte Weaver is Founder & Executive Director of Bridges Together, a nonprofit providing training and tools on the art and science of intergenerational engagement for individuals, communities, corporations, schools and professional healthcare workers. She can be reached at Andrea@BridgesTogether.org and on Twitter @BridgesTogether