By Sally Abrahms, Next Avenue Contributor
In a national report released today, two out of three adults surveyed said they want to spend time with people who aren’t their age, while three in four wish there were more opportunities to get to know different age groups. Why, then, aren’t there more intergenerational programs and initiatives?
I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, The Old, And What We Can Achieve Together, published by the nonprofits Generations United and The Eisner Foundation, lays out the case for more mixing of the generations, and suggests ways to achieve it.
The online Harris Poll survey of 2,171 U.S. adults ages 18+ conducted in February 2017 for this report, points to few opportunities for interaction. According to the report, in the U.S., “intergenerational friendships are the exception rather than the rule: for the most part, age segregation prevails.”
Separation Between the Generations Begins Early
Consider this: Students go to school with peers, older adults often live in retirement communities or assisted living, college students hang out together in dorms and classes, youngsters attend day care. Neighborhoods are often segregated, with six in 10 leaning either young or old.
In the survey, 53% of people said they rarely spent time with other age groups except family members. The demographic with the least contact with other generations: 18- to 34-year-olds.
Not having exposure to different ages often leads to ageism, an us-vs.-them mentality, and missed opportunities, maintains the report. In fact, 76% of adults surveyed believe ageism is a serious societal problem.
But, the report says, there are some encouraging signs.
“A scattering of pioneers in both the public and private sectors have already begun the work of reuniting the generations, and they’re reaping extraordinary results,” the report says. “Through carefully designed ‘intergenerational programs’ in towns and cities around the country, kids are getting the attention they need, elders are finding purposeand connection, and the two groups are working together to make their communities better places to live.”
Intergenerational Partnerships Benefit All
When generations work together, this can break down stereotypes, change attitudes and lives, foster mutual empathy and improve communities. Intergenerational partnerships allow each group to see the other as individuals, just people — rather than “old” or “young.”
Adults can share their knowledge (through mentoring and tutoring) as well as provide love, attention and emotional support. Many older adults have time and want to spend it doing something that really matters.
The report notes that intergenerational programs can also improve kids’ and teens’ social skills;,self-esteem, school performance and decision-making, while expanding their world. By contrast, children offer affection, purpose and fun, reducing the loneliness that consumes many older adults. That loneliness can lead to depression, isolation and poor physical health.
And, there are advantages to communities that mix the generations, the report says. Shared spaces and various programs under one roof make intergenerational contact informal and ongoing. These might include pairings of a day care center and a long-term care facility, a Headstart program with a congregate meal site or an alternative high school with a clothing and food pantry. Equally important, sharing facilities and resources is cost-effective, saving taxpayers money.
The Power of Sharing Stories
One example highlighted in the report is a project started by residents at the Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md., a continuing care retirement community.
Recently, the group has been working with a nonprofit that helps Muslim kids cope with discrimination. A panel of older adults from Asbury shared their experiences of discrimination as part of a Courageous Conversation series: one Asbury resident fled the Holocaust as a little girl; another was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Zahra Riaz, 18, immigrated to the United States from Kuwait eight years ago. Because she wears a hijab, she was called “towel head” and “terrorist” by kids at her junior high in Texas. Since moving to Maryland, things have been better, but she still feels gets unwelcome stares. Sometimes, she feels unsafe, the report said.
It helped to be part of a Courageous Conversation, Riaz said.
“When I heard those people’s stories, I thought to myself, ‘It’s not just Muslims; it’s other cultures, too, that have been discriminated against. And it’s not just me, one Muslim; it’s many Muslims who have been impacted,’” the report quoted her as saying.
Riaz is especially grateful for some advice the now-90-year-old Japanese internment survivor gave her.
“She said, ‘Don’t be bitter in life. You’ll go through a lot of things; people will try to break you. But you have to try to be positive, and you have to move on with a smile on your face,’” the report said.
An Interest in Connecting
There is deep interest in intergenerational interaction. According to the report:
- 77% of adults wish there were more opportunities for intergenerational interaction in their community
- 92% of adults believe that older adults benefit from having relationships with children and 93% think kids gain greatly from interacting, and getting to know, adults
- 93% say children and young people are vulnerable and should be protected; 92% feel similarly about older adults
- 88% of adults want the federal government to invest in the well being of both old and young
Successful Intergenerational Initiatives
Take a look at four of the programs highlighted in the report:
- DOROT — A New York City program that has 7,000 children, teens and young adults visit 3,000 isolated older adults and has an intergenerational book club, baking program, arts and crafts, singing and mentoring
- San Diego County — Its local government has a team of five intergenerational coordinators tasked with finding volunteer older adults for needy kids
- Asbury Retirement Community — As mentioned above, this retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md., partnered with a nonprofit for immigrant and Muslim youth to discuss the older adults’ past discrimination and the children’s current discrimination through a program called Courageous Conversations.
- St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care — Preschoolers and older adults both attend the day care program, with formal intergenerational activities twice daily and ongoing informal interaction.