Blog By: Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United
As 7-year-old Ian looked at pictures of people of all generations, he took in the friendly faces, unhappy faces and diverse faces. When asked who he could be friends with, he’s as likely to point to another 7-year-old as he is to a 77-year-old.
His mother reports he will run up to an older person in a wheelchair to say hello, not stare at them out of curiosity as some of his peers might.
Ian’s a boy for all ages because of his early childhood spent in an intergenerational shared site that offers day care for young and old. Rather than artificially segregating people by age cohort, intergenerational programs offer an alternative view of a world that honors and engages all ages and abilities.
The late anthropologist Margaret Mead understood the benefits of intergenerational programs, when she noted: “Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.”
Those words ring true today as they did when they were first published over four decades ago. While some are just waking up to smell the demographics, professionals in the field of aging have long been aware of America’s growing racial generation gap.
According to our report, Out of Many, One: Uniting the Changing Faces of America, more than half of Americans today under the age of five are people of color, compared to less than one in five Americans over 65. Our demographic diversity – in both age and race – is our greatest asset. Young people of color, who will drive the future growth in our workforce, will be challenged to support and care for older people in the future.
While early intergenerational programs in the U.S. started to help alleviate the growing poverty and isolation among elders, the programs have advanced greatly.
Over the last four decades, intergenerational practice has developed into a more systematic effort to address social problems that can include providing extra support for low-income children, teaching a person of another age a new skill or generations learning about each other’s cultures.
Intergenerational programs connect young and old folks for mutually beneficial, planned activities.
These opportunities resulted in older adults remaining active and productive while young people are provided a means for recognition. Both groups benefit from feeling valued as contributing members of society.
Intergenerational opportunities also give elders a chance to pass along the value of volunteerism and community involvement to younger ages, while they give young people a way to share unique talents and skills with older adults.
Today, there are possibly thousands of intergernational models of all types and sizes operating in rural, suburban and urban communities across the world.
Here are some examples.
Road Scholar Intergenerational Programs were designed for adults (grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, or authorized family friends) to participate in a learning adventure with their young relatives or friends. These programs provide opportunities for grandparents to get to know their grandchildren better, for aunts and uncles to share their enthusiasm for special places, and for participants to experience with younger friends the spirit of Road Scholar: “sharing new ideas, challenges, and experiences is rewarding in every season of life.”
Older volunteers are also engaged at San Pasqual Academy in Escondido, California. This intergenerational residential facility operates as an extended family for the foster youth and older adults who live on the campus. So the elders are the grandparents, the resident assistants are house parents and the young people treat one another like siblings. The teachers, counselors, therapists and staff also become a part of that family. Older mentors help teens develop independent living skills and help them transition out of the foster care system.
The roles reverse at The ManaTEEN Club in Bradenton, Florida. Teen volunteers in the Home Safety for Seniors program evaluate older adults’ needs and install items such as bathtub rails, deadbolts and smoke alarms in their homes. They also have a Pets in Emergencies program to identify pet-friendly facilities for seniors who refuse to evacuate in weather emergencies without their pets, as well as to transport those pets during evacuations.
At Habitat Intergenerational Program (HIP), a Boston-based program founded in 1997, children, high school students and older adults are linked for service-learning projects focused on environmental issues and conservation. They work side by side on a variety of projects including spreading wood chips on trails and clearing invasive plants.
Developed by Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning, Across Ages is a national program replicated in over 40 communities across the country. It matches older adult mentors with middle school youth, teaches life skills and engages teens in community service activities to prevent substance abuse and other potential problems.
Then there’s the Rocori Senior Center in Cold Spring, Minnesota, located in the Rocori Middle School. Older adults sing in the school choir and are living history classroom speakers. They also help by working in the media center or chaperoning dances.
These examples show that intergenerational programs, whether community-wide or facility-based, make better use of resources because they connect generations rather than separate them. When the wisdom of age is mixed with the energy of youth, it creates a powerful combination that benefits everyone.