Connecting the Generations

Senior volunteer with younger volunteers

Anthropologists tell us that one reason the human species has been so successful over time is that grandparents provided extra care and resources for their grandchildren, helping to ensure their survival. The experts even speculate that we evolved to live as long as we do — far beyond the prime reproductive years of other animals — because of this survival advantage. So you could say that it's hardwired into us to want to be with younger people as we age.

But today, the developed nations are experiencing a literal generation gap, with older adults and younger people spending less time together. Young people tend to move away from their hometowns, while their grandparents might choose to live in a 55+ retirement community. More services and facilities target people of only a certain age range. A recent report from United for All Ages, a think tank in the UK, says that "tackling intergenerational inequality is the challenge of our times," and they call for an end to "age apartheid."

The segregation of ages is having some negative effects on our well-being, say experts. For example:

Young people who spend less time with older adults are more likely to harbor negative ideas about seniors and aging. This ageism not only causes emotional distress and depression for seniors, but also deprives young people of a positive blueprint for their own aging.

Age segregation clumps people together with others who have the same needs. Children thrive on the kind of attention and mentoring they get from older people; seniors can usually use some help with certain tasks. Keeping the oldest and youngest apart means a loss of this mutual assistance.

Seniors who don't spend time with children miss out on an important source of purpose and legacy, which is a core element of emotional health in our later years. A study from the American Sociological Association showed that giving advice to younger people is an important emotional need for older adults — yet, say the study authors, "At the same time, this happens to be the age when opportunities for dispensing advice become increasingly scarce." Other studies show reminiscing with young children also provides a sense of legacy, and in turn, children who hear these "when I was your age" tales feel more positive about seniors and their own aging.

Here are ways to narrow today's generation gap for the benefit of people of every age:

Make an intergenerational lifestyle part of your plan for aging. Gated, 50+ senior living communities have flourished, and offer many advantages. But today, there's also a trend toward purposefully intergenerational senior living. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that "intergenerational cohousing in which residents share meals and chores not only can benefit older adults but also aid young families who may need help from their neighbors when juggling work and family." The combination child daycare and senior center model also is taking off — seniors and little kids are a natural combination! Some retirement communities now are affiliated with universities, and some are even renting rooms to students. One such community in the Netherlands reports that the students enjoy a good study environment, and the elders enthusiastically take part in computer games and graffiti art classes.

Spend more time with your grandkids and great-grandkids. Sept. 10 is Grandparents Day! If you're lucky enough to have grandsons and granddaughters, explore ways to do more with the youngest family members, depending on your health and the dynamics of your family. Offer to watch the kids on occasion while Mom and Dad are at work, if that's feasible. Plan a trip with the kids, or have them stay with you while their folks take an anniversary trip. If you live far away, set up video conferencing. Maybe the grandkids can help you with tech support. And check out this humorous video from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, who urge grandparents to get the kids off the computer and onto the playground. If you don't have grandchildren, you might "adopt" some from younger friends who could use your help.

Volunteer with children. Having grandparents helped our ancestors survive, and a recent study from Stanford University confirmed that older adults continue to be a key to success for children today. Said professor Laura Carstensen, "Contrary to widespread beliefs that older populations consume resources that would otherwise go to youth, there is growing reason to think that older people may be just the resource children need." Seniors volunteer at schools and daycare facilities, and in scouting and clubs. They model problem-solving and emotional skills for children, while improving their own physical and emotional health. Carstensen noted, "Focusing volunteer efforts on young people improves the young people's chances of success in life. These mutual benefits are perhaps the most compelling reason for programs that connect young and old. It is a huge loss for society not to offer such counsel and experience to young people."

Join a cause. There's an ugly cliché that older adults don't care about social causes. Nothing could be farther from the truth! While younger people may be more idealistic, older adults bring wisdom and experience to the mix. They can build powerful bonds over shared values. Each can learn from the other, and working together makes it more likely that they'll make a difference. For example, a recent study published by the Gerontological Society of America says that older adults can be a powerful ally of the young in addressing a warming planet. Said Bucknell University professor Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D., "The authors do not see older adults solely as victims of climate change but also as leaders of climate action. Those 60 and above have time, talent, and a desire for a sense of purpose as they reap the benefits of their longevity bonus."

Take a class or learn a new skill. Learning doesn't stop when we get out of school. One of the best ways to engage with younger people is to learn something together. Join a community orchestra or arts club. Check out your local college extension. Study something you've always wanted to know more about. Better yet, choose a topic that's a little out of your comfort zone! A poetry lover might develop an appreciation for the intricate rhymes of hip hop music. A Shakespeare fan might enjoy parsing out the complex plot of "Game of Thrones." Hire a young computer tutor. Join a drama group. Experts even report that seniors and kids bonded during the recent "Pokémon Go" craze as they hunted the elusive creatures together.

Alzheimer's Disease and Children

Woman with Alzheimer's enjoys time with a toddler

Dementia manifests itself differently among individuals, but quite often, people with memory loss blossom while spending time with children. Young children have a nonjudgmental nature, and people with memory loss can be very patient. Said one expert, "In certain ways, young children and people with early dementia think alike!" If the young person might find the changes in a beloved elder's behavior distressing, it's important to explain what's going on. The Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging offer some good suggestions.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.