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Intergenerational Programs: Keeping Seniors Young, Making Youth Wiser

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

“Are the children coming today?” Ruth, an immaculately dressed senior with styled silver hair inquires of the activities director, who is busily placing crayons, paper, glue and scissors around a large craft table. Another woman, Marge, hunches silently in a wheelchair beside Ruth, hands balled tightly in her lap. Her eyes seem to flash at the mention of “children,” although she can barely lift her head.

As if on cue, a three-year old girl bounds into the room, claiming the floor as her sacred playground. She has an immediate and attentive audience of older adults who are waiting for just this moment. These “grandmas” and “grandpas,” as the young girl calls them, eagerly look forward to their regular visits by children of all ages from the local community. These children come to talk, read stories, play games or make crafts with the older adults. And both the young and the old love these times.

Blending Generations

These organized gatherings, where older adults and youth come together to share time and experiences, are called intergeneration programs and are increasingly being used in retirement, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities around the country. “Intergenerational programming,” as defined by the National Council on the Aging, involves those “activities or programs that increase cooperation, interaction or exchange between any two generations. It involves the sharing of skills, knowledge or experience between old and young.”

Increasingly, facilities across the country are opening their doors and hearts to children in the community as part of newly formed intergenerational programs. Children and their parents are invited to share songs, stories, snacks and crafts with residents. These sessions are open not just to families and friends of the residents, but also to the general public. The goal is to mutually enrich each age group through meaningful interaction.

Closing the Generation Gap

Over the past three decades, there has been a substantial amount of research that describes a widening “generation gap” between young people and older adults. Part of this gap can be attributed to the marginalization of older adults in our culture. As a result, many young people shy away from older adults because they have misconceptions about the aging process. Older adults, on the other hand, often don’t feel appreciated by young people and primarily seek out the company of those their own age. Though this pattern of age segregation has become routine in our culture, research has linked it to a decline in life satisfaction among older persons. It has also been shown to increase negative stereotypes younger people have toward the aged.

For example, younger people are sometimes intimidated to open themselves up to older adults for fear of being criticized. Or they may be afraid to approach an elderly person with a debilitating illness like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease because they don’t understand how to act around someone with these conditions. Programs that foster intergenerational contact can teach children to become comfortable with older adults and see aging as a normal part of life. Likewise, older adults need contact with younger people to dispel fears of being stereotyped as “old” or judged because they can’t articulate or remember things as they used to. Numerous studies have shown that intergenerational programs have been found to diminish age-related stereotypes on both sides, strengthen communities, and lead to improved services for children and older adults.

Help Your Loved Benefit from Intergenerational Contact

If you or your older loved one would benefit from more intergenerational contact, there are many options to help engage with younger people and experience the value of this interaction. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Visit a senior center or residence. Many retirement, assisted living or skilled nursing communities offer intergenerational programs that you can participate in even if your loved one is not a resident. Call facilities in your area or check with community resources like park districts, civic centers, religious organizations or service groups for suggestions.
  • Go to your local library. Many libraries, bookstores and even some coffee shops offer story hour for younger children. Some establishments even seek adult volunteers to read books to the children.
  • Ask schools about volunteer opportunities. Schools are rich resources of information on how to get involved in the community. Many schools have pen-pal projects or welcome veterans to speak to classes as guests.
  • Take a trip to a playground. Look no further than your local playground for happy squeals of youth. Witnessing a four-year-old learn to pump a swing or slide backwards can bring a smile to anyone’s face.
  • Plan a tabletop activity. When the grandchildren or neighborhood youngster comes to visit, pull out small puzzles, drawing materials or even play dough to promote interaction and a share a fun activity.
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