Innovative programs across the country are maximizing the many benefits to all when generations mix.
Often in life, we find ourselves divided by age. In school, then at work and again in retirement communities. Many talk about helping older adults, but it’s also younger people who need help. Young, old and in-between are meant to live together and interact.
For instance, older people traditionally teach and take care of the young. The relationship benefits everyone. Parents get a little time off and receive emotional support and advice from older adults who have already raised a generation. Older adults get a second chance to spend time, a resource that many have more of, with children. They can model and teach empathy, character and unconditional love. Children remind their older relatives and friends how to play, be in the moment and not worry about an end goal. They encourage joy, hope and love while providing an endless source of diversion.
As many families are spread across the miles, many communities are rethinking the idea of separating age groups, coming up with innovative ways to combine generations for the benefit of all. Let’s look at some successful programs around the country.
Common Unity pairs high schoolers in Topeka, Kansas, with adult mentors who help them navigate basic life skills. Often city employees, the mentors, teach financial literacy and budgeting, and assist the kids with applying to colleges or trade schools. They may also take part in community service projects together.
The program began at Highland Park High School. City officials are eager to see it spread across Topeka so that every child of high school age has a mentor to guide them to adulthood.
Fostering Hope is the brainchild of pediatrician Dr. Angela Carron, who left medicine after 21 years when research showed the treatment she was providing child abuse victims didn’t work. She asked herself if unconditional love could become a program.
“A large system and talk therapy aren’t designed to provide what young people need most—stability and long-term connections with at least three people who are irrationally crazy about them,” Carron says. Give kids that, she added, and it will make “all the difference between thriving and not.”
Older volunteers from faith communities around Colorado Springs, Colorado, serve as extended family for foster families. They may take children to the library, help them learn to drive or guide them in how to find affordable housing—all while providing that essential component of love without qualifiers. Some adult volunteers stick with kids from infancy to young adulthood.
Does it work? While 20 percent of foster kids nationally graduate from high school, almost all the kids mentored through Fostering Hope do. Plus, these children are three times more likely to be adopted than other teens in foster care.
Nuns and Nones forms a bond between two groups: religious sisters and Millennials, who are likely to check “none” on the Census form’s religious affiliation box. The sisters share wisdom, sacred spaces and a passion for social issues, while the Millennials find mentors for tackling social problems like economic inequality.
“We’re pioneering something the world desperately needs,” says Milicent Johnson, a Millennial. “Two groups that you would think are totally opposite—nuns and millennials—coming together and having the most beautiful, candid, soul-bearing, life-altering conversations. I think we can help inspire other communities to try to begin to talk more to each other.”
The group spreads its message in several ways, including local gatherings, shared social issues work, spiritual practice and co-living residences.
Read to Me International’s (RTMI) Haku Mo’olelo program is a pioneer project with the State of Hawaii Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state’s eight correctional facilities. Older adults volunteer to help incarcerated women write, illustrate and publish storybooks for their children.
The books are sent home, together with audio recordings, to help children remember and connect with their mothers. The sudden separation of a child and parent can be deeply traumatic for both and the program maintains connectedness and builds literacy in both moms and children.
Seeing-i2i.com is an unusual program out of Gainesville, Virginia, that pairs low-income teens with older adults who are willing to learn a non-violent, sports-focused video game. The intergenerational friendship has a mentorship aspect as the older adult helps the youth with college applications.
The program is also creating job experiences for the teens. In the first half of 2018, 600 companies in 28 states created 2,500 Esports jobs. Interestingly, nearly half of adults over 50 play video games.
Providence Mount St. Vincent Assisted Living’s Intergenerational Learning Center has been inundated with visits from people around the globe since being featured in a 2015 documentary, Present Perfect, by filmmaker Evan Briggs. The film features the daily interactions among the day care center’s 125 children and the assisted living facility’s 400 adult clients with an average age of 92.
Children in the day care make daily visits to the older adults to share music, art, a meal or just a greeting. The connections are more than the sum of their parts, according to Marie Hoover, director of the learning center for infants to 5-year-olds.
"The activity a teacher may have planned is nowhere near as important as the love between the two age groups," she says. "When I talk to people who want to bring this model to their hometowns, I emphasize the importance of that. The activities are the vehicle to spread the love.”
The Intergenerational School in Cleveland, Ohio, is the result of a geriatric neurologist married to a developmental psychologist, naturally. Peter and Catherine Whitehouse launched the charter school with the idea that learning shouldn’t be segregated by age.
"We reject the idea that age should be how you organize learning. Learning is a lifelong process and we should invite learners of all ages to participate in learning activities," says Peter Whitehouse. The school's first intergenerational program—a one-on-one reading program—continues to be the most important.
"Because of their circumstances, many of the children don't have early literacy skills," Whitehouse says. "We train our volunteers that their job is not to teach reading skills, it's to teach a love of books and to use books as a way to have rich conversations."
Maple Knoll Village is a nonprofit continuing care retirement community in Cincinnati, Ohio, where youngsters are a common sight throughout the 54-acre campus, thanks to the Maple Knoll Montessori Child Center located there.
Along with older residents, kids garden, learn carpentry or blow bubbles. The kids like to visit their “Grandfriends” for weekly art classes. Children assume teaching roles as they help residents with dementia play matching games or put together puzzles. The kids benefit from added resources such as the pottery studio and radio station. The constant contact helps the children get over any reluctance to approach older adults.
"Many times I've had parents say that their child doesn't ignore older people when they're out and about in public, and that the children are more helpful and empathetic. The interactions bring an awareness of older adults to them,” says Meri Fox, director of the center.
ONEgeneration is a nonprofit pairing adult and child day care program participants for activities like cooking, crafting or rocking a baby. With daily interaction, both children and adults refer to each other as “neighbors.”
"You really do see the benefit to both populations. It's a very special program," says Anna Swift, adult program director, whose own son attended the child care center. She says that when their older adult population, who often feels very dependent, interacts with the children, “they get that adult role back, they feel needed, and have the opportunity to teach and instruct.”
One man with early onset Alzheimer’s connected with a little girl, reading to her and helping her get to sleep at nap time. His wife claimed the program had “given her husband back” to her. “We have dinner conversation again,” she said.
The program in Van Nuys, California enrolls 120 children and 100 adults with an average age of 85.
The Tiny Tiger Intergenerational Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin, arose out of high school student demand for a facility where they could gain hands-on experience caring for older adults and children. The child care center and adult day care opened six years later. Students can volunteer and work at both facilities to prepare for careers in human services.
A welcome but unexpected benefit arose when adults in day care started visiting the children, whether to rock a baby to sleep, color with a toddler or read a book.
Activities to Connect Generations
Cooking. Everyone likes to eat, and older adults have decades of kitchen experience to pass down. Invite a group of people of all different ages over for a pasta party or pancake cook-off.
Game playing. Some older adults are up for a summer game of tag, or Twister indoors. Almost anyone enjoys a card or board game where skills of patience, fairness and taking turns are inevitably part of the process. Teens can show older adults how much fun video games can be.
Physical activity. Something as simple as taking the dog for a walk can lead to great conversations. How about a yoga class or shooting some hoops? Building a snowman, sledding or riding the lazy river at a recreation center are just a few of hundreds of activities different generations can enjoy together.
Classes. Partner up for an art class, nature walk or library event. Learn to cook, sew or change the oil. Learn Pilates or the right way to brush your teeth … almost anything is available on YouTube for free if you can’t find a local offering.
Projects. Make a quilt, build a rocket or create jewelry together. Plant a garden, decorate a window or make a scene in a shoebox. Paint a room together or enlist youngsters to help with your shed-building endeavor.
Outings. Ask an older neighbor to play mini golf or see a movie. Take an acquaintance out for a smoothie or coffee. Invite someone to sit with you at a dog park or fountain to watch others or stroll along a street in a pretty neighborhood.
Writing to Cure Loneliness
Some older adults have no family or friends to connect with, a fact Marlene Brooks discovered the day she found a neighbor’s heartbreaking letter in her mailbox. It read:
Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old—live alone and all my friends have passed away. I am so lonesome and scared. Please—I pray for someone.
Brooks wrote her neighbor back, starting a rewarding relationship that continued even when her neighbor moved to assisted living. But she realized there were many other older adults like her neighbor, so she started a Facebook page called Pen Pals for Seniors.
The site matches participants who would like to have a pen pal. You can also fill out a form to request a pen pal on behalf of an older adult.
Additionally, the high schoolers get an opportunity for real-life learning, bestowing greater awareness and empathy. Classes in caregiving and life span development, combined with activities to connect generations and facilitate working with children and older adults, enable the teens to get a career jump on most youth their age.
Senior Housing with a Twist
Senior living has taken a new turn, thanks to a novel approach by Deerfield, a Lifespace Retirement Community in Urbandale, Iowa. Staff partnered with a nearby university to invite a college student to live in the community for a semester, offering free board and meals in exchange for musical performances.
“What I wanted to gain was stories that the people who live at Deerfield have to offer,” says Haley Jenkins, the Drake University senior who answered the call. “I really do love older people and sharing their life experiences, whether that be in college, or where they grew up or advice they want to give me. I really love that opportunity to learn and talk with them about the different experiences. And vice-versa, to share that with them.”
The classically trained vocalist and music major took her assignment seriously, purchasing books of oldies, jazz and big band to round out her repertoire in hopes of connecting with the older aduts. In turn, Deerfield hopes to achieve a sense of normalcy more like outside life and keep the residents from feeling isolated.
“It’s part of a healthy community to have people mixing from different generations,” says James Robinson, executive director of Deerfield. “It’s good for the older adults who live here at Deerfield to be able to share their hopes, dreams, ambitions with someone that is Haley’s age, who has her own hopes, dreams, ambitions. They overlap in a lot of ways.”
Exposing more people who are Haley’s age to senior living communities may get them thinking about a career option for themselves, muses Robinson. He hopes other senior communities can model what Deerfield is doing.
“I would encourage the industry to think about what successful aging means,” he says. “I think aging successfully means to have people of all ages together. They don’t necessarily have to be living together under one roof but have opportunities for people of all ages to come together. If that results in a relationship with a university like Deerfield has with Drake, that’s outstanding. From our perspective, it’s been well worth it.”
Click below for the other articles in the February 2019 Senior Spirit
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors