Intergenerational Magic: When Young & Old Connect, Both Reap the Rewards
Updated: Mar 9
“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation." - Margaret Mead
In our society today, there’s a significant separation between the youngest and oldest among us.
With kids busy with school and activities, and the older set sometimes in retirement communities, institutions or at home, often alone - research shows that young people these days are less likely to interact with older adults than ever.
Aging stereotypes planted early
Not unlike other disparate groups, the less the interaction, the more the environment is rife for breeding stereotypes, prejudice and dislike. Research shows that young people are more inclined to have negative and stereotypic views of the elderly.
Dr. Becca Levy is a professor of psychology at Yale University and a leading researcher on stereotypes and aging. Her stereotype embodiment theory posits that ideas about aging, and stereotypes associated with older adults, are internalized as children and grow from there.
So many of the isms take root in childhood and ageism is no different. For the young, the elderly can become the Other.
Ageist stereotypes affect kids
The lack of personal exposure coupled with mirroring the negative bias of the media and society at large, ageism has wide-ranging effects, affecting old and younger alike.
When children and teens are exposed to negative ideas about aging and the elderly, it not only foments a new generation of ageism directed at older adults but it plants the kernel of their own not-so-future aging anxiety.
The child in your home is not only a future adult, she is a future elderly person.
Levy’s research shows that children go on to internalize negative stereotypes about the aging process which turn into fear and anxiety about themselves as they age.
Damaging our daughters, especially
Negative stereotypes and the fear of getting older affect young as well as old, female and male alike.
Society’s aging gender bias and the emphasis on youth and beauty, makes aging more stressful on women especially but increasingly, also for younger women and girls.
Fueled by online beauty influencers and marketers cashing in on the growing and increasingly profitable fear of aging, social media has been decidedly indicted in aiding these fears. Constant daily comparison to edited, unrealistic and impossible beauty standards become oppressive for young women trying to measure up.
A 2018 study showed that over half of 18-to-24-year-olds are using age-defying beauty products, including Botox injections. But no number of treatments can fix insecurity or what clinical psychologist John Duffy calls, the mental and emotional toll about future aging that’s leading youth to a sense of hopelessness about the future.
That’s no way to start out in life.
“In youth we learn; In age we understand.” – Marie von Ebner Eschenbach
Reading, math, human lifecycle
Helping young people instill an accurate understanding of the life cycle and aging is important. As parents, let’s add this to the list of skills for adulting.
We want to help kids to see not only the value and variation in the elderly population, but to understand that they are us and we are them. Someday, in a bazillion years, they too will succumb to the normal, natural reality of aging.
Life is longer (and shorter) than they realize.
Real, live old folks
Personal, individual relationships between youth and the elderly are the most important catalysts for breaking through aging stereotypes and fear. Let's try injecting something different: a new model for older adulthood beyond the bad publicity.
Kids and teens that see what aging actually looks like become more comfortable with their own. They understand that not everyone ages the same and that stereotypes are often unfair or wrong.
“Children need the wisdom of their elders; the aging need the encouragement of a child’s exuberance.” – Corrie ten Boom
Bridge from the past to the future
Forget history class.
Connecting generations help young people understand the world and their history better - through a personal lens.
It’s one thing to teach the Great Depression in class. It’s another to interview elders who were themselves children at the time, describing the impact not only on their childhood but for their life since that time.
Intergenerational relationships help both young and older alike make connections across time and life phases.
Obvious, untapped life-experts
Dr. Laura Carstensen is the Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She led the 2016 report Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future about the power of connecting generations, young and old.
There are certain behaviors, attitudes and skillsets that make for productive, successful adults. According to Carstensen, it is just these building blocks that older adults, with their decades of experience, bring to the table.
Well-earned insights about problem-solving, critical-thinking and the art of emotional intelligence, honed over a lifetime have shown to be the soft spot where need and experience collide and have immense impact.
Older, wiser mentors help young people with ‘planful competence’, the ability to think about one’s life ahead, match up interests and talents and pursue long-term goals. They have also been shown to impact academic success, helping to improve grades.
“…there is growing reason to think that older people may be just the resource children need.” – Dr. Laura Carstensen
Social, emotional benefits
All those jam-packed schedules full of extra-curriculars might be nice but dropping the teen off with grandpa once a week will deliver on mental, emotional and physical upsides for all involved - including grandpa.
Just the interaction between youth and age injects vigor and energy into the older set and has been shown to aid in cognitive and circulatory health as well as lengthen lifespan.
Research shows that kids and teens benefits immensely by intergenerational relationships, including greater confidence and self-esteem and being better able to resist peer pressure. Like a social media antiserum.
Exposing young people to elders also helps them develop important social skills, emotional stability and empathy.
Value of the village
Many busy parents find their time, attention and patience stretched thin.
On top of that, young people today spend the vast majority of their time either with peers or on a screen.
Little time if any is dedicated to personal relationships and time with other adults outside of parents, school and other scheduled activities. In so doing, we miss out on the most valuable teachers and coaches of all.
Research has found that for children to fully develop social-emotional skills, they need as many as 4-6 caring, mentoring adults in their orbit. While teachers and coaches are key, elderly friends and relatives can be some of the best people to fill these important roles.
Just like the birds and the bees, young people will look for guidance and information from others their age, also with limited life experience. Having adults beyond parents that kids can rely on and confide in can help in developing important life skills like problem-solving and decision-making.
Adults of different backgrounds or generations help broaden a child’s perspective and introduce children to new ideas, activities or lessons. Compared to other sources, research has found that the attitudes and knowledge young people learn from their elders tends to make a lasting impression - often remembered for a lifetime.
“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” – Urie Bronfenbrenner
Borrow someone else’s grandparents
One day when my child was in 3rd grade, she came home from school and excitedly announced she had two new friends. She said she and a friend were now eating lunch at the center benches with 'Mayde and Sherman' two times a week.
I smiled at the resurgence of old-fashioned names given to little kids these days.
Turned out, these were no kids. And they hadn’t been for some time.
Her newest friends were married retirees and volunteers at her school. The friendship that started at the center benches at lunch has continued and deepened. Years on, her childhood has been pricelessly enhanced by their many outings at farmer’s markets, museums, even a college campus tour.
There’s a powerful movement afoot.
With all the research pointing to nothing-but-upside for old and young alike, programs have been created nationwide with the goal of building important intergenerational bridges.
The intergenerational movement aims to give kids much-needed time and attention, while helping older adults stay connected and find meaning in their lives.
Children and young adults adopt homebound elders in New York City, helping to build personal, ongoing relationships. Intergenerational integration is one of San Diego county’s declared core values. Designated coordinators and programs seek to harness the rich resource of older adults to help kids who are struggling.
“We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” – Gloria Steinem
Young people as teachers too
These connections also help younger people feel needed and allow them to be generational experts.
Let’s put all the screen time to good use. These digital natives interact with technology easily, confidently and instinctually. Many older people find technology intimidating.
This is a perfect intersection where young people get to be teachers. Programs that match up teens with seniors for tech coaching have shown to increase confidence and self-esteem.
Closer than you think
My widowed neighbor is part of the 80% of older adults that AARP says hope to stay independent and in their own homes for as long as possible - rather than be separated from their communities into age-segregated housing and care.
More and more older adults are also without close family, or family close by. Connecting generations – especially on your block – leads to the betterment of old, young and the community as a whole.
While we have them, let’s reach out.
These are not people from a generation that asks easily for help but could increasingly use a helping hand. Your kid has two of those.
Have them bring over their report card to kick off a conversation. They might get a dollar. Or they might get a lecture. The latter is way more valuable - especially these days.
“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” – Erik H. Erikson