By Susan Ashby
October 21, 2018 (San Diego) - While 94 percent of Americans believe there is value and knowledge seniors can pass along to children, under 30 percent actually know of places in their community that bring generations together. This issue is compounded when families are spread out across the United States and even the world. Grandparents aren’t always able to interact with grandchildren in person. Thankfully, intergenerational programs can bring seniors and youth together in ways that better the society at large.
What Is an Intergenerational Program?
Intergenerational programs are ways for communities to come together and provide enrichment for all ages. These programs help give both older and younger generations a chance to interact with and learn from each other. Foster Grandparents was the first intergenerational program to be set up back in the 1960s. Each setup is different, but these can range from having elders read to children during school to foster families having seniors nearby for assistance and guidance. Putting these programs in place has many benefits, both for seniors and youth.
For seniors, intergenerational programs provide socialization, purpose and better health. As seniors retire, they may not have much social time outside of their assisted home health aide. Loneliness grows and they begin to feel less valued, which can affect their health. If they join an intergenerational program or community, though, they will be able to interact with a wide variety of people. In fact, 45 percent of seniors involved in these communities have said they feel more a part of the community than before.
When seniors are able to volunteer, especially with youth, they feel like they have a purpose. Being able to impart their knowledge and share about history with younger people is great for everyone involved! This can help fight the common lack of satisfaction seniors tend to develop as they age.
From playing tag or hide and seek to building with blocks, elders have many opportunities to become more physically active. This is especially true when seniors interact with young children. They often have no choice but to move around! Sometimes, this can be difficult, making an assisted home health aide a great stand-in.
Physical health isn’t all that improves. Seniors who spend more time with children see improved mental and emotional health as well. Rates of depression and anxiety drop. Engaging their brain with younger generations also helps keep seniors’ minds active and youthful.
All this activity leads to an overall drop in health care utilization. As seniors become more active, engaged and fulfilled, they may be at less risk of major health events.
Thankfully, seniors can learn through this process, too. Some programs pair up seniors and teens to work on computer skills. Information exchanges like this can help seniors learn new skills or use ones they already have so they don’t lose those.
These programs don’t just help seniors–they also bring a large number of benefits for youth.
Children who interact more with elders are less at risk for developing behavioral issues as they grow. That includes misusing drugs and alcohol. This may be partly due to feeling like there are more people who care about them. Having more support often leads to an increase in self-esteem–something 29 percent of youth reported.
When seniors volunteer as tutors in classrooms, children become better at using important skills. Kids increase their ability to read at a faster rate than those without access to older adults. That doesn’t just stop at reading. Children in these programs have an overall better academic record than their peers. They’re also more compassionate towards and comfortable with other older people, those with disabilities and more.
Like seniors, youth can participate in a volunteer capacity through these programs. They can visit seniors in their homes, perform basic medical screenings and even help provide elderly care services. Thirty-six percent of younger generations feel more well-versed in issues seniors face or faced in the past through these interactions.
Even college students are able to reap the benefits of these programs. Intergenerational Solutions in Housing, located in New York City, brings college students and seniors together in a mutually beneficial way. Seniors who have extra space in their homes provide rooms to students in exchange for companionship, running errands and taking care of their shared living space. Students are able to reduce their debts during school and seniors receive a small amount of elderly care services.
Engaging with each other helps promote understanding. When youth and seniors interact, both groups can understand each other better. Misconceptions of baby boomers versus millennials fall away and they begin to see each other as real people.
With so many benefits, why aren’t there more intergenerational programs?
The first issue is that people may not realize it, but they’ve begun creating their own intergenerational connections out of necessity. Many families are living in multigenerational homes due to housing costs and financial barriers. In fact, a sixth of all Americans live under a roof with at least two other generations. More people still utilize families and close friends for child care.
Unfortunately, even with these connections, there isn’t a lot of support for mindfully creating new spaces specifically for programs. There are few sources of funding for accessible and intergenerational housing, school programs and more. People also don’t know these programs exist or the benefits they bring so there isn’t as much growth as there should be. Ageism towards both young and old combines with the status quo to limit resources.
Hopefully, though, as awareness of intergenerational programs grows, so too will the number of attendees and programs. With the increasing population of both seniors and young people, intergenerational programs help ensure that all community members feel involved–and that’s something we need more of in this world.