|by Susan V. Bosak
In those at either end of the life course – the young and the old – you find striking similarities. We live in a society that values adulthood, and in turn doing – productivity and ongoing activity. The young and the old share a different rhythm. It’s one that focuses not only on doing, but on the power of being. It’s the simplicity of playing with blocks or tending to flowers. The young and the old are most closely connected with the essence of living. They can exist in a moment that’s the grand sum of past, present, and future. Rather than time being the enemy – rushing time or stressing to fit as much into time as possible – time becomes a comfortable companion, a circle rather than a line.
We divide up our communities and our activities by age – young people in schools, older people in retirement communities or facilities. We talk a lot about all the ways we need to help older people. But, perhaps, the old can help us. It’s the experience of life in a multigenerational, interdependent, richly complex community that, more than anything else, teaches us how to be human.
If we can improve the standing of older adults in society, and nurture what they can bring through intergenerational connections, then we can achieve a better community with a better quality of life for all ages.
Historically, young and old connected naturally. Older people taught the young how to be and how to become. Close daily contact between the young and old was a matter of survival. Being with, watching after, and assisting in the care of young children, while demanding in many ways, does not require the full vigor of youth. The physical limitations that can come with getting older actually cement the relationship between old and young. An elder capable of working the land or building a house or strenuous cleaning would have less inclination to spend hours doting on grandchildren, telling them stories, and instructing them in the ways of their people. The physiological changes that accompany old age, which contemporary society looks upon with great disdain, can actually be useful preconditions for valuable intergenerational connections.
There is a back-and-forth reciprocity between all generations. Adults provide support to elders, most often to address health or physical limitations. Elders, in turn, assist adults through experience, emotional support, and participating in the care of children. Elders can help socialize children, teach them empathy and character, and give them an unconditional form of love they can’t find elsewhere. Children, in turn, can be an endless source of joy for elders, share affection and play, and provide assistance with many simple tasks. Children can participate in the work of adults, and provide enjoyment and love. Adults, in turn, provide food, shelter, clothing, and nurturance to children. And so a strong, healthy, intergenerational web of community goes.
Many older adults today are better educated, healthier, and more able than elders of past generations. They can clearly be a tremendous resource. But what about the oldest, frailest of the old? They can be our greatest teachers. They can certainly instruct us with words and stories of times past, and share a lifetime of accumulated wisdom. But what they truly help us learn about is the world and ourselves as they teach us with their very selves, their being. Elders can also teach us about the end of life, which informs the whole of our lives.
I’ve seen it in my work with families, my community workshops, and in all the research: relationships between young and old make us feel connected. They make us feel connected not only to each other, but to something bigger, to the past and to the future, to the flow of life. This connection leads to tangible benefits for all generations.
Benefits to Children
Research shows children need four to six involved, caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. The problem today is that children often get too much peer socialization, too much mediated contact through computers and texting, and not enough one-on-one, personal time with mature adults.
The benefits to children of a close, long-term connection with older adults include:
Benefits to Older Adults
The benefits to older adults of a close connection with the young include:
Benefits to Young Parents
The benefits to parents when the “grand generation” is a part of their lives and their children’s lives are also clear.
Today’s parents are often stressed and overwhelmed. A loving, supportive grandparent or other older adult can give them someone to talk with – someone who’s “been there” but now, with the benefit of hindsight, can help put issues into perspective.
It’s also comforting for parents to know that there are other adults who love their children and are looking out for them. Grandparents take some of the pressure off parents.
Finally, there is the tangible support of reasonable physical or financial help when it’s needed. Grandparents can be a safety net in the highwire act we call the modern family.
Many people say their relationship with their parents improves when children enter the picture. For example, an overly strict parent suddenly becomes a “softie” as a grandparent. Adult children see their parents in a new light, and this can help heal relationships.
Beyond Just Programs
The richest forms of human development are most available to those willing and able to interweave their needs and potential with the needs and potential of others, especially those younger or older.
The success of isolated intergenerational projects and programs across the country clearly demonstrates the significant benefits of intergenerational contact to both children and adults.
The challenge now lies in going beyond a project or program here or there to making a larger commitment to intergenerational connections so that they become a part of daily life and the social fabric.