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Family Caregiver Blog

Connecting Across the Generations

By Sally Abrahms

Intergenerational. Expect to hear this word a lot as the concept is gaining fans of all ages. Participating in activities with different generations can benefit older adults—as in your parents. And,as important, there’s something in them for you, too.

Programs range from every day contact between generations--having a day care center on the same floor as a nursing home (The Intergenerational Learning Center at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle), a senior center that shares space with a high school (Swampscott High School in Swampscott, MA), or living together in cohousing, for instance—to not so daily encounters. That might be older adults and kids getting together once a week to tutor, make art, or with no agenda except to have fun and build relationships.

More than anything else, mixing non-related (and of course, related!) seniors and children can give meaning and a sense of purpose to both sides.

Benefits of Intergenerational Interaction

Researchers, academics, physicians and others working in the field of gerontology agree that participating in an activity that brings meaning-- intergenerational opportunities certainly fit the bill--is good for your physical, cognitive, and emotional health. Need evidence?

  • A Rush University Medical Center study showed a 30 percent lower rate of cognitive decline for those who felt a sense of purpose than those who didn’t.

  • Experience Corps, an AARP program in 21 states where older adults volunteer to teach kids in high-need elementary schools to read, found those volunteers had improved mental and physical health, diabetes needed less medication, and arthritis sufferers had less pain.

I asked Donna Butts, executive director of the nonprofit Generations United, the go-to national organization for intergenerational initiatives, to weigh in. Here’s her take: “Children learn soft skills and patience and benefit from the wisdom of older adults. Older adults report feeling more optimistic and take better care of themselves as well as being more physically and mentally alert.” But this is Butt’s best line: “Connecting with another generation is like filling a prescription for purpose.”

I have seen it! I have listened to an intergenerational chorus in New York made up of family caregivers (spouses, adult children and parents) and their cognitively impaired family members. (That chorus is electrifying and performs concerts for the public.) I have heard a former foster care child living in a western Massachusetts community with loving and supportive older adults call one “Grandma” because she feels close to her. It’s a relative term; no blood ties needed!

Programs Not Just for Grandma

Boomers and other adult children: while I’m writing about intergenerational opportunities for your parents, the benefits apply to you, too. Hot off the press: encore.org just launched a Generation To Generation initiative. It is a call-to-action campaign asking one million adults age 50+ to volunteer to help needy kids succeed. You sign up and the organization will connect you with opportunities, whether it is mentoring, tutoring or something else. Among those participating are Senior Corps and Oasis, which has the largest intergenerational program in the U.S.

There are hundreds of cool intergenerational programs around the country. To find an opportunity near you or your parent or get a sense of offerings, check out Generations United.

One thing is certain: being with people like you—same age, same type, same background--can be boring and even stultifying. Meeting others who are different and doing for others, or watching your parent be the recipient of such a program, is a great holiday gift for all.