Intergenerational relationships? Think about a competitive and scrappy baseball-playing kid who practically climbs into the hospital bed to hug his grandfather after surgery. Think about a three year old riding gleefully on the seat of “Grampy’s” rollator walker. Think about a teen who giggles about her freshman heartthrob with her great-aunt. Even a sixty-something Boomer whose best friend is twenty-five years older is an expression of the way longevity can affect the way we relate to others. The unprecedented “graying” of the U.S. population has a sweet and unexpected aspect: the joy of generations sharing their diverse lives.
By the year 2030 our population is expected to boast 72 million Americans age 65 and older. The immense Baby Boomer cohort who complained loudly about the “generation gap” when they were younger are now embracing the idea of positive intergenerational relationships.
Psychologist Erik Erikson explains this change of heart in Baby Boomers with his theory of social development. He suggests that around the age of 60 the final stage of a person’s emotional development is reached as people attempt to make sense of the lives they have lived. The focus turns to legacy. Of course this shift is seen in generations older than the Boomers, as well. A compelling desire to “give back” often rises, and finds expression in ways as multi-faceted as the generation itself.
Among family members, for example, keeping family history alive may be a priority. The shared stories that are passed on from generation to generation help us understand who we are. Genealogy, ethnic customs or the geography of an ancestral homeland may be interesting to an adolescent. Sorting through yellowed photographs or learning a few words in another language might delight a seven-year-old. Even for the unrelated, getting to enjoy a scrumptious cookie recipe from another culture can be delectable as well as educational!
The wide world becomes at once smaller and bigger still when generations start sharing. The freshness of hearing history related first-hand can be captivating. Details that no history book chronicles may generate giggles or tears. Skills can be swapped from one generation to another, too, allowing octogenarians to learn to text and youngsters, to use slingshots.
A loving atmosphere allows the best of all generations to surface. The emotional security and wisdom of an older family member could help children and teens navigate difficult periods. The joy of playtime with little ones could help a great-grandfather find escape from tedium.
Intergenerational bonding benefits everyone. Studies support intergenerational benefit to everything from immune systems to social intelligence. Whether a senior mentors younger relatives or kids in a classroom where he volunteers, there is evidence that academic performance and self-esteem of those children improve. Ongoing research indicates depression is less for seniors who stay involved with younger people and that even the onset of Alzheimer’s disease may be affected. Special projects have even pioneered marrying child care and nursing home facilities, to the benefit of old and young alike.
I’ve spoken to senior volunteers who insist that volunteering with children and youth “keeps me young” because the interaction keeps them engaged and energized. Of course it also helps the young people involved in scores of ways. (Whether through formal volunteerism like the 50-year-old Foster Grandparent Program or innumerable informal avenues, studies reveal that folks 65 and older contribute over a billion and a half hours of service to communities every year, to all generations. That benefits society at large. For inspiring stories, check out Home Instead’s Salute to Senior Service site).
The wide world becomes at once smaller and bigger still when generations start sharing
Getting involved with younger people certainly reduces the risk of social isolation for older adults, too. Likewise, intergenerational relationships can reconnect kids whose social skills are narrowed by our society’s obsession with technology. Intergenerational bonding fosters true human connectivity for all ages involved and has the tender potential to touch life after life in a ripple effect through other relationships. It gives children an honest perspective on older people. That helps the younger generations avoid ageism by allowing even concrete-thinking younger children to see elders as people, not caricatures. Relationships with other generations afford younger and older people alike an understanding of changing but crucial contributions folks can make at any age.
Recognizing another person as a priority, and simply sharing the invaluable gift of time intentionally shared can be life-changing. To take the time to focus on another person is a wonderful affirmation of that person’s unique importance. Since older adults often have the luxury of a slower pace than even young children in today’s over-scheduled society; setting a time to get together may be easier for them. Honestly, though, even if it seems to require the expertise and diplomacy of a social secretary to find a time to share, the result is worth the schedule-juggling.
Even if the exigencies of getting together just prove too much for a frantic and frazzled schedule, what about a pen pal relationship? Or perhaps weekly “phone pal” dates? This sort of relationship can be fostered whether there is a family connection with the older and younger generations or if it is through a possible volunteer framework.
For a family that is searching for activities to build or strengthen intergenerational relationships, here are some ideas:
Let me reiterate, the way the time is spent is less important than redeeming the time with the other person of the other generation. That way, “other,” becomes “together.” Choosing to pour oneself into another person’s life at any age is a noble cause that demands intentionality and sometimes, sacrifice. The key word in intergenerational relationships is “together.” Pablo Picasso said of painting “the great thing is to do them, do them, do them.” I suggest that the most important factor in intergenerational relationships is to “be there, be there, be there.”