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.