It’s easy to understand how aging adults, many of whom are retired and live alone, can become isolated and disconnected. But we forget that living alone is not the only factor that can lead to social isolation — seniors who live in assisted living communities or with family caregivers may also experience feelings of loneliness.
Beyond negatively impacting seniors’ emotional well-being, social isolation carries other negative side effects. Did you know isolation and loneliness are even associated with an increased risk for chronic disease and cognitive decline?
Alternatively, regular social interactions — engaging in conversation, playing games and partaking in group activities —keep our minds sharp. Studies have shown that cognitive stimulation can help slow the decline of dementia in its early stages, suggesting that social interactions and activities are especially important for seniors living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Unfortunately, these are often the very people who experience lack of stimulation and isolation.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix to this dilemma — it’s called intergenerational bonding. Bringing seniors and children or young adults together through planned, mutually beneficial activities and programs is one way to help seniors feel connected to others and provide much-needed stimulation. Across the country, more communities, organizations, senior living communities and schools are incorporating intergenerational programs to benefit both the old and the young.
Examples of these programs include older adults serving the young through mentorship programs—seniors volunteering in schools as reading assistants, tutors and resources for career and parenting guidance. There are also examples of programs where younger generations visit senior centers and communities for service learning projects; elementary schools may encourage young students to become pen pals with a local senior, or visit a senior community to collect oral histories and tap into seniors as a resource in their learning. There are even examples of older adults and the young sharing settings: day care centers that house both adult care and childcare programs are a growing trend — there are now more than 500 intergenerational day care centers across the country that encourage daily interactions between seniors and children.
All kinds of benefits
Intergenerational programs like these benefit the entire community, but they can be an especially effective in helping seniors combat feelings of isolation and promoting overall well-being. Studies have linked intergenerational interaction with decreased loneliness, lower blood pressure and reduced risk of disease; a Japanese study from 2013 concluded that socialization across generations also increases the amount of smiling and conversation among older adults.
Intergenerational bonding activities can even help slow cognitive decline, making these kinds of activities and interactions especially beneficial to seniors with dementia. According to Generations United, a nonprofit that advocates for intergenerational programming, older adults with dementia or other cognitive impairments experience an uptick in positive engagements when interacting with children compared to other interactions. They also perform better on memory tests than their peers who are not involved in intergenerational activities. And for seniors living with dementia, interacting with children may alleviate social anxieties and communication problems that can be common during interactions with other adults.
Intergenerational programs can pump new life into older adults and senior living communities, making them more vibrant places where seniors grow closer to others across generations, as opposed to growing further away. If you’re interested in exploring intergenerational activities, consider calling senior centers in your area for suggestions. For a more comprehensive overview and further resources on intergenerational programs, visit the Generations United website.
Terry Tumpane is the Executive Director at Bridges by EPOCH at Norwalk, a memory care assisted living community that will open in fall 2017. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.