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Bridging the Generation Gap

Program Manager and proud aunt Kathryn enjoys sharing her nephew with Friendship Center members when he comes to visit!

By Kathryn Cherkas
Program Manager, Friendship Center Montecito

When groups of young people visit Friendship Center, be they children or teenage students, I gather them for a little “pep talk” in the lobby before going in to meet our seniors. I tell them what they can expect to see or hear from this population and some pointers on starting conversations. Some of them are fidgety by now or even looking a little apprehensive.

This is when I turn on my extra-big friendly voice and say, “Okay, everybody, listen–this is why you being here matters.”

Then I clue them in to this eminently important fact: As brain functioning changes in older people, especially with conditions like dementia, they might talk differently, walk differently, behave differently, or think differently. But despite that, underneath it all are a bunch of grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, moms and dads, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.

We’ve found that these titles carry a lot of importance with young people, as they are still in the stage of life where they rely upon parents and older relatives and identify themselves along relational lines. Hearing that they will be meeting “grandmas and grandpas” instead of “old people” seems to elicit respect and interest from the kids.

And the really vital point to get across to the kids is that these “grandmas and grandpas” will be so happy to see them!

“Intergenerational activities” is a fancy way to describe different generational groups spending time together. According to Erik Erikson, one of the first researchers to champion the benefits of contact between seniors and children, the similar developmental and sociological needs of children and seniors allow them to create unique relationships with multiple benefits for both groups.

For young people, time spent with seniors can help to dismantle myths and fears about the aging process, fill a void if they don’t have grandparents or older adults in their lives, and promote improved social abilities through bonding with an age-diverse group. Studies also show that children who spend time with elders show increased levels of empathy and reduced age-ism.

For elders, being around young people provides a unique form of therapy that cannot be replicated. For seniors with even a severe dementia diagnosis, the simple presence of children can quickly transform their mood to a more joyful one. Perhaps they remember their children when they were young, or think of their own childhoods.  Either way, having children around brings that world back for them and lets them be a part of it again. Like a favorite tune from their youth, hearing the soft voices and playful laughter of children can take seniors back to a very sweet place in their memories.

While children bring them such an abundance of joy, seniors may not have young people in their families or not be able to spend time with them due to mental, physical, and geographical limitations. Visits by young people, at Friendship Center or even at home, are a key aspect of a compassionate care model for seniors. Contact with children helps them not only reminisce on their own experiences in youth but also allows them to feel loved and remembered as a part of society.

Friendship Center’s GOLD (Growing Old) Project takes small groups of our seniors into elementary school classrooms for shared dialogue about their lives. In our work with elders at Friendship Center, we’ve seen that age-ism can cause our members to experience isolation and feelings of reduced self-worth. Intergenerational activities, like the GOLD Project, hold the possibility of not only dispelling myths and stereotypes about aging and elders among the young, but also raising self-esteem and feelings of self-worth among elders.

So encourage the young people in your life to spend time with local seniors, for the benefit of both groups. If they drag their feet, inform them that they are providing a much-appreciated service that no app or video game in the whole world can replace—simply smiling, sitting, and sharing with a senior.

Erikson, E.H. (1963) Childhood and Society. New York: Norton

 

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