We are just 6 years away from a time when our population will dramatically change. Because by 2025, according to the US Census, people over 65 years of age will outnumber youth under 13. This population shift will create many opportunities and challenges which is why we must be prepared.
As we talk with our colleagues in the longevity and aging space, we often hear the stories of older adults who impacted us during our youth. From grandparents to great-aunts and uncles, neighbors, librarians and even mentors at work – they took us under their wings and helped us learn to fly. We had a desire to help them, as well. We experienced rich, interdependent relationships which bridged generations. They left imprints on our hearts and spirits that helped usher us into this field.
With the demographic changing, we need people who are committed to working for and with older adults. Unfortunately, there are fewer organic or informal opportunities for young people to spend time with older adults and they are not necessarily experiencing the power of elders. We now live in an age-segregated society. Most of us spend our days with people in our own age cohort – or cohorts just above or below us. There are a variety of reasons for this including changes in our families, economics, housing, technology and more.
Thankfully, many in the longevity fields are working to make our communities more age-friendly and to help individuals reframe the aging narrative from one of doom and gloom to that of activity and possibility. Every now and again in these movements, we hear about intergenerational engagement – the stories seem so nice and may appear to be fluffy. In reality, intergenerational engagement which purposefully engages skipped, non-adjacent generations is critical. When done well, they support the well-being of all involved.
Intergenerational programs are a vaccination against ageism and a prescription for longevity. Research has shown that engaging the bookend generations addresses the following issues we are now facing:
- The roots of ageism can be seen in children as young as three years of age, suggesting that earlier intervention is required. Current approaches do not adequately address how ageism and age segregation have played important roles in today’s older adults being socially isolated.
- Social isolation is on the rise for both older adults and young people. This leads to diminished physical and cognitive well-being with financial consequences. The health detriments of this isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day!
- There are glaring gaps in the education of young people about the longevity dividend and how they can benefit from it, personally and professionally.
Here are some ways that you can help prepare for 2025 in your personal life:
- Reframe your own aging. What do you expect your life will be like in 10, 20, 30, 50 years? Research has shown that our attitudes about our own aging affect our health outcomes and longevity! Start thinking positively!
- Check your language. Do you use terms like “old enough” or “can still…” – as in she is 92 and can still…
- Begin to recognize ageism – that cuts both ways. There is the “invisibility of aging” where older adults are not recognized or respected. But there is an ageism against youth – with fears that they are trouble or incompetent, especially economically.
- Start a meaningful conversation with someone in a skipped, non-adjacent generation – both at work and at home.
- Learn about the benefits of strong intergenerational programs and then...
- Be an intergenerational champion. Be a change agent that helps to make your community more intergenerational. Bridges Together has many tools and trainings to help you be successful and effective bridging the generations.
- Create opportunities for older adults to engage with young people. Intergenerational programs foster purpose and meaning, which can result in improved well-being and friendships, curbing isolation across the life span.
- Reverse ageism by exposing young people to positive stories about long, vibrant lives, which has a ripple effect on families, organizations, and communities.
- Inspire young people about the possibility of entering careers with older adults. After having experienced a rich relationship with someone 65+, youth are more likely to collaborate with and advocate for older adults in their own lives. Intergenerational programs also support young people’s academic development by extending classroom learning, as well as socio-emotional development, especially with face-to-face communication skills.
- Empower older adults to become advocates and champions for younger people, improving their lives and experiences while stopping ageism against them.
Professionals in aging can take concrete steps to support intergenerational approaches:
- Foster intergenerationally focused leadership in your community. For example, convene a leadership team or task force that draws from constituencies of diverse ages will strengthen all programming.
- Provide opportunities for casual and formal intergenerational encounters – from starting a public campaign encouraging people to get to know their neighbors to offering formal programming on a regular basis.
- Establish policies, procedures, and practices that support intergenerational relationships – from including and recognizing age diversity along with other forms of diversity to starting your staff meetings with a question that empowers people to share about their personal lives, providing opportunities for people to see their commonalities regardless of their age.
- Committing to share space and resources – from opening up your foyer for chamber group practices to supporting organizations that focus on intergenerational relationships.
- Cultivating an atmosphere of age-inclusion beginning by helping people identify their commonalities and including “intergenerational engagement” as a core value in programming.
About the Author
Andrea J. Fonte Weaver is Founder & Executive Director of Bridges Together, Inc., the globally recognized organization dedicated to training and tools that empower leaders to connect generations. She is the author of the award-winning BRIDGES™ Program Curricula which has united 20,000+ older adults and students to explore aging as a lifelong journey. She and her work have received over 7 prestigious awards including 2017 Innovator of the Year from the Massachusetts Council on Aging and 2016 Generations United Program of Distinction. Weaver leads the agenda, content and discussions at The Intergenerational Symposium, an annual event bringing together intergenerational professionals for an exchange of ideas and actionable next steps. Her vision for developing more intentional intergenerational engagement as a key solution toward reducing ageism and curbing social isolation has been applauded by organizations worldwide. She has presented at over 65 conferences and is interviewed and published regularly in aging, education, and other publications. Weaver has received 3 professional certifications adding to her MS in Intergenerational Studies from Boston University – Wheelock College and BA in Sociology with a Gerontology Certificate from the College of the Holy Cross. Follow her on Twitter @BridgesTogether and contact her at Andrea@BridgesTogether.org