Why Elder Care and Child Care should be in the same place. (Read below what they are doing in Singapore)

WSJ Retirement Expert Marc Freedman says he sees the beginnings of an uprising designed to bring old and young into much closer proximity, essentially to social engineer something that once happened naturally.
WSJ Retirement Expert Marc Freedman says he sees the beginnings of an uprising designed to bring old and young into much closer proximity, essentially to social engineer something that once happened naturally.

Driving north on old Highway 1 in Philadelphia, en route to visiting my nursing-home-bound father, I fiddled with the FM tuner.  The goal: finding the university radio station where I’d hosted a country-music show three decades earlier, before moving to the other side of the country and abandoning youthful DJ dreams.

After a string of tracks by edgy artists I’d never heard of, the twentysomething radio host selected a 45-year-old song, John Prine’s “Hello in There,” from the artist’s great debut album of 1971—picked by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest albums of all time. It was an appropriate homage in the year when Prine turns 70, and his fellow septuagenarian Bob Dylan (who once backed Prine on harmonica), was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Prine’s lyrics set the stage for what my wife, our three young sons, and I would soon encounter at the old-age facility where my father is living out his waning months.

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Some things haven’t changed much since the early 1970s, even at good nursing homes like the one where my father resides. The utter, complete and shocking age segregation that predominates in so many of these institutions greeted us–our 7, 9 and 11 year old boys in tow–as if we’d wandered in from a distant planet with some unknown species. Every person in the social hall was elderly, not a child anywhere to be found.

It would be unfair to point the age-segregation finger solely at nursing homes. Since the middle of the last century, forces in American society have labored mightily to separate us by life stage, shunting older people to nursing homes, senior centers, retirement communities and other old-only enclaves.

These places provide some economies of scale, I suppose, but also shield a society obsessed with youth from the painful reminder of what lies ahead–while also permitting older people in leisure-focused playgrounds to indulge in the fantasy of a second youth undisrupted by the presence of actual young people.

In little over half a century, we turned the natural order of things, thousands of years of human mixing between young and old and those in the middle, into an age apartheid that is profoundly unnatural. Not to mention harmful to all concerned, most especially to older people forced to live out their last years in depressing circumstances where, as Prine would say, they “just grow lonesome.”

We can do better. In fact, I see the beginnings of an uprising designed to bring old and young into much closer proximity, essentially to social engineer something that once happened of its own accord, in the fabric of daily life.

These possibilities are beautifully depicted in the forthcoming documentary, Present Perfect, featuring the Providence Mount St. Vincent Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle, where 400 elders share a building with 125 unrelated preschoolers. It’s a place that looks very much like the one where my father resides, but with children! And the difference is everything. There’s joy.

Nursing homes aren’t the only places where age integration is beginning to reappear, like blades of grass springing up in sidewalk cracks. The nonprofit Generations United istracking the co-location of senior centers and child-care facilities, along with other arrangements bringing children and seniors together. And the Intergenerational School in Cleveland is connecting old and young in ways that stimulate the intellectual development of both groups.

These bright spots are hardly confined to the domestic scene.  Singapore is implementing plans to make the co-locating of these facilities the rule, not the exception. That nation’s $3 billion (Singapore) plan to become the envy of the world’s rapidly aging societies explicitly calls for “co-locating of eldercare and childcare facilities” in new developments “to maximize opportunities for intergenerational interactions” and encourage innovation.

These efforts at age integration constitute social innovations aimed at bringing back some of the best features of the past in ways suited to the modern-family world—a kind of progressive nostalgia knitting together unrelated people, young and old, who need support and need to be needed, too.

At a time when we will soon have more people over 65 than under 15, these new ways to accomplish old things mark the first steps toward once again making contact between the generations something as normal as the oxygen in the air. Which, of course, it happens to be.

Under the new administration

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11.24.16 NEW ORLEANS – Being old in America could get a lot more difficult under a Donald Trump presidency, experts in aging warned this week as the impact of the U.S. election reverberated through the massive annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

For some, the hardest part is the realization that older Americans, who will likely be hardest hit by changes to health care and discretionary spending, were among the Republican president-elect’s biggest supporters.

“I have worked in gerontology since the ’80s,” said Toni Miles, a professor at the University of Georgia. “I feel betrayed because older people voted for a guy I couldn’t stomach.”

As an indication of the mood, Canadian flag pins were going like hotcakes at booths manned by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and other Canadian groups studying aging. More than one person joked that the Canadians should have brought a stack of immigration papers with them to the conference in New Orleans.

At a press briefing on the impact of the election on eldercare policy, participants admitted to ripping up the notes they had prepared in advance, because they really didn’t know what to expect under a government that has promised to repeal Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — but has offered few policy details about what the result might look like for older Americans down the road.

“None of us knows what is going to happen. We can barely keep up with 10 minutes ago,” said Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, which operates an employment program for low-income older adults.

“The world we lived in two weeks ago is different than the world we live in today,” said Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University who played a key role in social security reform. “People are scared as hell out there.”

Brian Lindberg, executive director of the Consumer Coalition for Quality Health Care, said he and others threw out the power points they had prepared for the conference because they were no longer relevant.

“It will be a difficult period,” he said.

The U.S. has the most expensive and least effective health-care system compared to 11 other industrialized nations, according to recent research. Among other things, life expectancy in the U.S. is the lowest among comparable countries and Americans have greater rates of chronic diseases.

And health care was an issue that resonated with many U.S. voters. Analysis by the Economist magazine found that Trump support was strong among the sickest Americans.

Aging experts say misinformation, including the persistent myth that Obamacare would include “death panels”, helped create a hatred of the program that provided new health insurance to around 20 million people and drove votes toward Trump.

But experts on aging policy say likely changes to health care under Trump will probably hit the elderly particularly hard. Trump has promised to rip up Obamacare. Although there are few details — and he has since suggested he might back down on it — experts said they don’t think that can be done entirely or immediately because the system is too complex.

Still, changes to health care will negatively impact seniors, especially if they touch Medicare, the health program for people 65 and older, something House Speaker Paul Ryan says he wants to do by turning it into a voucher system.

People who work with and study the aging population are “very wary” of any talk about turning Medicare into a voucher program, said Lindberg. “The marketplace has failed in many ways. Before we had medicare, people didn’t get coverage.”

As worrisome, said Lindberg, is that Trump promises to cut taxes and increase military spending will put pressure on discretionary spending programs — that includes a growing list of supports to help keep seniors healthy and in their homes. Getting rid of those programs will mean more seniors will end up in hospital, costing the health system more and reducing their quality of life.

Concerns about the future of health care for aging Americans is a growing issue as the demographic bulge of baby boomers reaches retirement age.

The U.S. government under Obama has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research related to aging, especially Alzheimer’s disease. The fruits of some of that investment were seen in research presentations at the New Orleans conference.

Lindberg and others said there has to be more work done to better understand the disaffected Americans, especially older, rural Americans in so-called “flyover” states, on whom the election hinged.

“To me, this election was a statement that there are a bunch of people who are having a really difficult time and they just don’t know who to blame, but it is somebody else,” said Lindberg.

“The aging rural population, as much as anyone, is getting left behind. We have to come up with solutions or this will not be the last election like this.”

Elizabeth Payne is the recipient of a 2016 Journalists in Aging Fellowship supported by New American Media, The Gerontological Society of America and The Silver Century Foundation.

Can older volunteers change the world by reaching out to America’s Youth?

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Can older volunteers change the world by reaching out to America’s Youth?”As we get older,” Marc Freedman said, “we want to be part of something larger than ourselves.”

To harness this yearning, he and hundreds of fellow boomers gathered earlier this year in a San Francisco convention hotel a few miles from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where the Summer of Love helped ignite the ’60s counterculture half a century ago. They were plotting a different social revolution for a different time.

When they were young, boomers defied their elders on everything from civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and Vietnam to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now, as they become elders themselves, some are feeling tugged again toward activism.

Freedman’s national nonprofit group, Encore.org, which held the conference, promotes “second acts for the greater good.” Next month it will launch Generation to Generation, a program that wants to mobilize a tsunami of older Americans to work in youth-serving organizations as volunteers, part-time staffers or stipend recipients.

Freedman and others believe that the demographic moment is ripe for such intergenerational activism. As any self-respecting boomer will tell you, there’s never before been so many older adults with so much gas left in their tanks. At the same time, a growing number of children and youth are living in poverty. Rates of childhood poverty in the United States now exceed rates of elder poverty by a sizable margin and are among the highest of any of the world’s economically advanced nations.

Setting the Stage

Cross-generational volunteering is not a new concept. It draws its inspiration from the late John W. Gardner, a civic activist who exhorted fellow citizens to find “breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” Two decades ago, in his early 80s, he and Freedman helped launch what is now AARP Experience Corps, a program that engages older adults as tutors for at-risk public school students. Today it is just one among scores of intergenerational initiatives across the country.

An organization with a similar mission, Jumpstart for Children, started in 1993 as a program that paid college students a small stipend to work as teacher’s aides in preschools in disadvantaged communities. But in recent years it has been recruiting older adults. “Because they’re more mature, they know how to foster a confidence in the children and a feeling of being cared for,” said Ray Ramirez, director of early-childhood education at Proyecto Pastoral, which uses Jumpstart volunteers in its Los Angeles preschool programs.

The granddaddy of such initiatives, Foster Grandparents, was created a half century ago as part of the U.S. government’s Senior Corps program. Research has shown that its benefits flow not just to at-risk children but to the older volunteers who work with them in schools, hospitals, juvenile correction facilities and day care centers.

“When you see kids running to greet their older volunteers, and when you see the faces of the older adults light up, you understand how much the generations can do for each other,” said Lester Strong, a former AARP Foundation vice president and CEO of Experience Corps, who attended the Encore conference.

Of course, programs like these cannot by themselves solve the next generation’s upward-mobility challenges. “The scale is too vast, but we are at a promising demographic moment if we can marry the energy of older adults with the energy of the young,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, who accepted an award at the Encore conference for her nonprofit’s work.

The Power of Community

At the San Francisco conference, more than 400 activists shared tradecraft about how to build programs like these into a coordinated nationwide movement. Most attendees were boomers, and they came with their generational élan at full throttle.

Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen (and before that, DC Central Kitchen), which provides food-service training to young adults aging out of foster care and older men and women coming out of prison, spoke about what happens when young and old who have been through hard times help one another find a path forward. “A great nonprofit doesn’t fix problems; it reveals the power of a community to solve them,” he said.

The Rev. Belle Mickelson, who founded a traveling music program for children in remote Alaskan villages, and Jamal Joseph, who created a theater program for youth in Harlem, were among the half dozen recipients of Encore’s annual Purpose Prize, given to older adults who find innovative ways to serve the public good. (Starting this year, AARP will administer the prize.) More than a few conference-goers had lumps in their throats as Joseph, a former Black Panther who did two stints in prison, described the journey from “pain to power” that led him to found IMPACT Repertory Theatre, which teaches leadership skills as well as creative arts.

 

Veterans of intergenerational volunteer efforts cautioned, however, that the movement faces some uphill battles. John Gomperts, head of America’s Promise Alliance, another nonprofit that promotes civic activism on behalf of youth, asked during one of the workshops: “If these programs are such an awesome idea — and they are — how come we don’t have even more of them?”

One obstacle is the ageist stereotype that older adults have little to contribute. In her address to the conference, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called on the 10,000 boomers who will turn 65 every day between now and 2030 to demonstrate with their social activism that “aging isn’t a problem, any more than living is.”

Other conference-goers noted that there can be institutional hurdles to overcome. Not all youth-serving organizations have easy on-ramps for volunteers. Some will have to institute costly background checks. Others may be wary of allowing volunteers to parachute into lives of vulnerable children, many of whom already experience a lot of churn at home and in school.

Then there’s the matter of volunteerism trends. The national rate has been ticking down for a decade, from a modern high of 28.8 percent of all adults in 2005 to 24.9 percent in 2015, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The falloff has occurred among all age groups. A 2014 AARP survey found a similar trend, which it attributed to a drop in affiliation with religious and service organizations, traditional mainstays of do-gooder activity.

Along with a decline in volunteering, there’s been a scaleback in public investments that favor the young. An ancient proverb says a society becomes great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. For most of our history, America has been a nation of planters. Lately, not so much. Public investments that promote economic opportunity for future generations — in education, infrastructure, basic research — have been declining as a share of the federal budget.

Perhaps the most daunting hurdle, and a reason that intergenerational harmony is more critical than ever, is what some have dubbed the “gray-brown divide.” “Our older population is mostly white, and our younger population has become increasingly nonwhite, and they don’t often have a lot of interaction with each other,” said Butts.

The generational divide has a political dimension, too. Older adults are now the most conservative age cohort in the electorate; younger adults, the most liberal. These fissures raise a difficult question: Will the human instinct to give something back in later life still kick in when young and old don’t look, think or vote alike? The rapidly diversifying America of the early 21st century is conducting that social experiment right now.

On the positive side, the public isn’t spoiling for a generation war. Back in the ’60s, the young had a finger of protest — often the middle one — thrust in the faces of the old. By contrast, today’s young put their elders on a pedestal. According to a new nationwide survey conducted for Encore.org, 9 in 10 adults between the ages of 18 and 35 say that older Americans are superior to the young in their moral values, their work ethic and the respect they show for others.

The public is also optimistic about intergenerational relations. In the survey, two-thirds said that as long as Americans remember that we all have obligations to one another and to future generations, the growing diversity of the population will be a source of national strength.

The activists who gathered in San Francisco hope these good vibrations can catapult intergenerational social activism into a robust national movement — one child, one adult and one community at a time. They see it as an antidote to the divisiveness of modern politics and an affirmation of what’s best about traditional American values. And they believe it can satisfy the thirst for a purposeful life that typically intensifies with age.

Doris Williams, 68, could not agree more. For the past three years, she has received a stipend of $2.65 per hour to work as a teacher’s aide at Jumpstart programs in South Los Angeles. “You are giving them something for a lifetime,” she said, “planting a seed that can go on forever. And they are giving you a reason to get up and go in the morning.”

Day-Care Programs Group Toddlers With the Elder

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Toddlers bop to surf music from a boom box, while a dozen senior citizens sit uneasily nearby — some dozing, others disinterested, and a few downright cranky.

But within five minutes, things start to change. Tito, a 95-year-old former truck driver with a hearing aid, smiles and bobs his head from side to side as a toddler stops by his chair to boogie. Rosie, a former nurse and teacher who can barely see, gets up to dance. And Bill, a 66-year-old retiree with Parkinson’s disease, bounces a little girl on his lap. By the end of the session, at the Mount Kisco Day Care Center in Westchester County, N.Y., it is hard to recognize the grumpy elders of a half-hour ago.

The two groups, at extremes of the aging spectrum, are at the forefront of a movement that is transforming elderly-care facilities and day-care centers alike. “Intergenerational” is becoming the new buzzword in the business of caring for both the very young and very old, as programs around the country join small children with elderly people who might otherwise be cooped up in retirement homes or living alone. The goal is to help the two age groups relate better — and in doing so, improve the energy and psychological outlook of elderly people as well as the social skills and confidence of pre-schoolers.

Though there have been experiments with the concept for years, it has only recently taken off. The number of facilities with joint care programs for the elderly and small children has grown by one-third, to close to 1,000 in the past five years, according to an estimate by Generations United, a Washington-based group that promotes intergenerational programs and policies.

WHEN FOURS MEET 84S

See a chart of some programs that offer intergenerational activities. Adobe Acrobat required.

And more are being started all the time. The Giles Health & Family Center, a day-care center for aging adults in Pearisburg, Va., is opening a children’s component by the end of this month. In July, the Macklin Intergenerational Institute in Findlay, Ohio, opened its doors. At the 189,000-square-foot “village,” the children often refer to the seniors as their “Grandmas” and “Grandpas.”

Experts say the programs encourage the kinds of relationships between young and old that once came naturally. In recent decades, the gap between generations has widened, with families becoming more spread out and elderly people fleeing for sunny retirement communities. Increasingly, older adults “may not be hearing a kid laughing or asked to change a diaper,” says Matthew Kaplan, a professor at Penn State University. Other proponents add that the concept offers communities a much more cost-effective way of providing care because resources and staff are shared.

Still, there are some concerns about regularly mixing the two groups, including worries that perpetually sniffling toddlers will pass germs to the vulnerable elderly. And questions linger over whether seriously ailing seniors — for example, those with advanced stages of dementia — are really the best thing for very small children.

Nevertheless, some studies suggest that being part of children’s lives can increase senior citizens’ sense of purpose and can lead to a healthier old age. One recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that senior citizens who volunteered in the Baltimore public schools reported increased strength, as well as better walking ability and fewer falls.

Another study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias observed 48 older adults over the course of a week at an intergenerational site. Researchers took note of the apparent mood and behavior of the subjects, coding it every five minutes. Results showed that the participants’ general well-being was significantly better when they interacted with children than when they did not.

Thrilled to be Called ‘Grandma’

Don Moses knows all this firsthand. After his 82-year-old aunt moved in with him in Arcadia, Ohio, her increasing forgetfulness and boredom soon became more than he could handle. Last year, he enrolled her at a nearby adult day-care center that had a joint program with children, and her whole outlook changed after just the first day, he says. She became more enthusiastic, and in particular looked forward to seeing the children. “That’s all she talks about when she comes home — the kids she saw today,” says Mr. Moses, who recalls how thrilled she became when one child called her “Grandma.”

Such interactions can help children as well. One study of 200 preschool children in Northwest Ohio sought to compare the social skills of pre-schoolers in an intergenerational program with those in regular day care. Overall, those in the intergenerational program scored higher in social development. In particular, they scored much higher in social manners — saying “please” and “thank you.”

Holding Hands

Holly Berger, whose four-year-old daughter, Maisy, has attended intergenerational day care since she was six months old, believes that her daughter’s daily exposure to the “neighbors” at the ONEgeneration Daycare center in Van Nuys, Calif., has contributed to her heightened social awareness and outgoing nature. Maisy often reaches out to elderly people in the street or in grocery stores, either to engage them in chitchat or just simply to hold their hand.

“She has no concept of that being strange or scary,” says Ms. Berger.

People in the field stress that the focus of intergenerational activity should always be more on the interaction — how well young and old relate — rather than the actual activity, whether it is bowling or baking cupcakes. At the day-care center in Mount Kisco, September’s “Intergenerational Activity Calendar” lists at least a couple of shared activities a day, such as making “jazzy jewelry,” “bowling for dollars,” and “glue the apples.”

But much of the interaction is casual. One recent day, 86-year-old Lucy Todisco, sits with a two-year-old boy named William, who is two-fisting crayons. “Who are you going to draw — me or you?” she asks. Farther back in the playroom, Karl Essell, 73, reads “My Five Senses” to two-and-a-half-year-old Elena. “I hear with my ears…” he reads, then asks her: “Where are your ears?” Elena dutifully points to the sides of her head. “Oh, that’s excellent!” Mr. Essell replies.

The room has few of the bright, primary colors that are common at many day-care centers. They could be jarring to the elderly. The colors in the Mount Kisco center are more neutral, and the atmosphere is cozy and plush, with a sort of family-room feel. The seniors reside at one end while the children are on the other end. They meet periodically throughout the day, either in playrooms or in an outdoor patio.

Finding a Program

People interested in intergenerational programs can check Generations United’s online database of more than 500 such programs at www.gu.org. (Click on “intergenerational.”) People in the field say good programs should encourage spontaneous and planned interactions. Most important, staff should be trained in caring for both children and for the elderly, so that they are well-prepared for the unexpected. Centers typically have an “intergenerational coordinator” trained in caring for both small children and the elderly, whose job is to talk to staffs on both sides regularly and plan out mutually beneficial activities.

It is also critical to make sure one age group isn’t treated as there simply for the purpose of the other. “We have to remember that the other side of the equation is equally important,” says Elizabeth Larkin, who researches intergenerational care at the University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee. She believes it is imperative to have dual-trained workers so that both young and old feel understood. “It’s not a quality program if it’s not mutually beneficial.”

Groundbreaking Study Shows Benefits of Intergenerational Volunteer Program

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Assistant Professor Tara Gruenewald

A program linking older adults with elementary students not only provides kids with academic and social support but also gives older volunteers a positive perception of how they help the next generation, according to a groundbreaking study by USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Assistant Professor Tara Gruenewald.“The Baltimore Experience Corps Trial: Enhancing Generativity via Intergenerational Activity Engagement in Later Life” is the first-ever large-scale experiment demonstrating that taking part in an intergenerational civic engagement program helps older adults feel more generative. Generativity is care and concern directed toward others, especially those in younger generations, said Gruenewald.

“In [Erik] Erickson’s life stage theory, the major goal in midlife is generativity, with efforts to promote the continuation of the next generation,” she said. “We all want to create something that outlives us.”

The Experience Corps, started in 1995 and now active in 21 U.S. cities as AARP Experience Corps, is a program that pairs older adults with elementary schools to help kids improve their academic, social, and behavioral well-being. Harnessing the wisdom and time of older volunteers, the program is a mutually beneficial scenario: kids get the help and encouragement they need, and older adults satisfy their need to be generative and see the impact of their work, Gruenewald said.

Baltimore, Maryland was one of the original five Experience Corps locations and has been the site of program evaluation for several years. Gruenewald’s study analyzed data from the Baltimore Experience Corps Trial (BECT), an unprecedented randomized controlled trial testing the benefits of the program for both volunteers and the children they help. Following Experience Corps volunteers and non-volunteer control subjects for two years, Gruenewald and her colleagues periodically assessed whether study participants experienced changes in what they thought about caring for and serving younger members of their community.

It turned out that compared to non-volunteers, participating in Experience Corps helped older adults not only want to be more generative but also have a greater appreciation for the generative things they’ve achieved. Gruenewald said that the randomized controlled design of the trial strongly bolsters the evidence.

“Even the members of our control group were very engaged and increased their volunteer activity; [all study participants] were highly motivated to give,” Gruenewald said. “Experience Corps participation showed benefits that were above and beyond [the control group’s results]. It’s the full package and provides intense doses of cognitive, psychosocial, and physical stimuli.”

Other upcoming BECT analyses will examine the academic, behavioral, and social benefits for children as well as delve further into the psychological and physical benefits for older adult volunteers. Existing research indicates that feelings of generative desire and achievement positively correlate with better health outcomes for seniors, Gruenewald said. She added that she hopes the BECT results lead to further development of intergenerational civic programs as well as more scientific support for such programs.

“To see how motivated elders are to be involved and give back is very affirming. We have a segment of the population that has a lot to give, and failure to tap into that resource is quite concerning,” Gruenewald said. “[A program such as Experience Corps] really is a win-win; we help our communities and help elders in the process.”

“The Baltimore Experience Corps Trial: Enhancing Generativity via Intergenerational Activity Engagement in Later Life” first appeared online in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Scienceson February 25, 2015 and will appear in print later this year. Funding for the BECT was provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) grant P01 AG027735, the John A. Hartford Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Older Americans Independence Center under NIA contracts P30-AG02133 and R37-AG19905, and NIA grant K01-AG028582 to Gruenewald.

The potential is unlimited

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-8-14-45-am(One added benefit of our Intergenerational Center as planned is after school care for those latch key kids who have no where to go.)

The Rev. Belle Mickelson, 68, with student musicians in Cordova, Alaska. — John Keatley

“As we get older,” Marc Freedman said, “we want to be part of something larger than ourselves.”

To harness this yearning, he and hundreds of fellow boomers gathered earlier this year in a San Francisco convention hotel a few miles from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where the Summer of Love helped ignite the ‘60s counterculture half a century ago. They were plotting a different social revolution for a different time.

When they were young, boomers defied their elders on everything from civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and Vietnam to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now, as they become elders themselves, some are feeling tugged again toward activism.


Freedman’s national nonprofit group, Encore.org, which held the conference, promotes “second acts for the greater good.” Next month it will launch Generation to Generation, a program that wants to mobilize a tsunami of older Americans to work in youth-serving organizations as volunteers, part-time staffers or stipend recipients.

Freedman and others believe that the demographic moment is ripe for such intergenerational activism. As any self-respecting boomer will tell you, there’s never before been so many older adults with so much gas left in their tanks. At the same time, a growing number of children and youth are living in poverty. Rates of childhood poverty in the United States now exceed rates of elder poverty by a sizable margin and are among the highest of any of the world’s economically advanced nations.

Setting the Stage

Cross-generational volunteering is not a new concept. It draws its inspiration from the late John W. Gardner, a civic activist who exhorted fellow citizens to find “breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” Two decades ago, in his early 80s, he and Freedman helped launch what is now AARP Experience Corps, a program that engages older adults as tutors for at-risk public school students. Today it is just one among scores of intergenerational initiatives across the country.

 

An organization with a similar mission, Jumpstart for Children, started in 1993 as a program that paid college students a small stipend to work as teacher’s aides in preschools in disadvantaged communities. But in recent years it has been recruiting older adults. “Because they’re more mature, they know how to foster a confidence in the children and a feeling of being cared for,” said Ray Ramirez, director of early-childhood education at Proyecto Pastoral, which uses Jumpstart volunteers in its Los Angeles preschool programs.

The granddaddy of such initiatives, Foster Grandparents, was created a half century ago as part of the U.S. government’s Senior Corps program. Research has shown that its benefits flow not just to at-risk children but to the older volunteers who work with them in schools, hospitals, juvenile correction facilities and day care centers.

“When you see kids running to greet their older volunteers, and when you see the faces of the older adults light up, you understand how much the generations can do for each other,” said Lester Strong, a former AARP Foundation vice president and CEO of Experience Corps, who attended the Encore conference.

Of course, programs like these cannot by themselves solve the next generation’s upward-mobility challenges. “The scale is too vast, but we are at a promising demographic moment if we can marry the energy of older adults with the energy of the young,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, who accepted an award at the Encore conference for her nonprofit’s work.