People playing violin
Aging Well

Intergenerational Programming: All Ages Can Benefit

We know that older adults and youngsters get together if they are related to each other, if they are employed at the same workplaces, if they attend the same houses of worship. But would older adults choose to engage in activities with young people who are not their relations? Would youth opt to get together with people who are much older than they are? For many people, the answer is yes. Not only that, but there are benefits to both age groups for bridging the generations even if they are not family members. Still, there are challenges to be met and prejudices to overcome.

I became interested in exploring this topic especially after the success of a series of intergenerational and interfaith activities held by my synagogue and a neighborhood church. Elementary and middle school students got together with senior citizens for volunteering projects. In addition, choral groups and text narrators of various ages attended an annual pre-Thanksgiving Weekend service that was enjoyable, and photographed for local news outlets.

Shared interests can bring together people of various ages. The Thomaston Public Library of Thomaston, Maine runs an “Intergenerational Book Club” that held monthly meetings in 2015; a page on its website lists the books to be read and discussed. The New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra, meeting in New Providence, held rehearsals, staged performances and even held light-hearted activities such as Pizza Night. An Intergenerational Women’s Choir active in Poughkeepsie, New York has performed at a “SingAThon/PlayAThon” at Dutchess Community College. They welcome “women ages 9 through 90+.”

Opportunities for volunteering can be found for those interested in intergenerational groups. The Intergenerational Club of Weston High School in Weston, MA involves a group of teenagers meeting with seniors; their webpage shows photographs of the mixed group doing some baking. The Senior Lifestyle, family-owned communities offer a “Connect! Senior Sidekicks” group in which “local students visit the community and join our residents for entertaining senior activities.” At Westminster Canterbury in Richmond, VA residents with dementia and without “can interact with the community’s child development center a few times a week.” A local ABC news outlet ran a story about this program, showing senior residents reading to young children and teaching Spanish conversation skills to a group of kids. The older folk enjoy the interactions, and sharing their talents with younger folk who relish the lessons and the attention lavished upon them.

Older adults can tutor and teach young kids; and youngsters can reciprocate with their knowledge in certain settings. For instance E. Aphek created a program called “The Intergenerational Program: Preserving Heritage in a Technological Environment.” Students from grades 5 through 11 helped seniors with computer and Internet skills, and collaborated on digital documentation projects. In Pittsburgh, PA a group of high school students visited the Heritage House Center for three months for local oral history lessons, and created a “Reflections” project, which included a mural.

There are even summer camps that pair up campers of many ages. In southern California, Camp Villa brings together residents of the Villa Gardens Retirement Community with kids from the Jefferson Elementary School. The two groups spent time playing croquet, taking dance lessons, going on field trips to nature centers and other fun but educational endeavors. In Colorado there are Road Scholar Intergenerational Programs that have themed sections such as “Dinosaurs and Fossils” and “Hiking, Mines and Rafting.”

There are many other groups and activities that bridge the ages, found in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Both age groups benefit from the interactions, the activities and the camaraderie. What are some specific plusses reaped by each group?

Older adults can better learn “new innovations and technology” from their younger counterparts. For many youngsters in the developed world, tech usage such as computer operation, cell phone mastery and digital gaming are nearly second nature, but not for many older adults. The pairing of generations helps the older ones fathom the hardware and grasp the operational aspects. In turn the younger ones learn how to teach, and how to be patient.

Some studies have shown that older adults who interact regularly with young people can burn more calories, perform better on memory tests, and have more positive feelings due to the social ties. For the youngsters, they reap more positive attitudes toward aging, and often have better reading skills and academic performance in general. (Whether or not this is due to self-selection or the actual interaction is not as clear.)

Communities in general also benefit from the bringing together of the ages, and these can blossom into “feel good” media stories covered on TV, radio, podcasts and in print.

Certainly there can be challenges. Can the older people keep up physically with the younger ones? Will the personalities mesh or clash? Will genuine respect and affection grow or will these be viewed as cobbled-together activities?

Intergenerational activities can be fun, and they can also be sobering. Years ago as a teenager in the Young Judaea movement, I participated in a few “senior visits” via the non-profit group Dorot. “Enhancing the lives of the elderly and uniting generations,” as they announce on their website home page (“Dorot” literally means “generations” in Hebrew), a few friends and I visited with older adults on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and brought prepared foods as well. A few of our visits were quite fun but I also recall a depressing occasion, involving an older woman who cried frequently and sang mournfully to a portrait of her husband, which she clutched in her arms. My friend and I left the woman’s apartment, nearly in tears ourselves. At the very least, intergenerational activities and interactions are a learning experience.

Photo credit: Alan S. Kaufman, courtesy of the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra

Ellen Levitt is a veteran New York City public school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. Among her books is Walking Manhattan from www.wildernesspress.com. She holds a first-degree black belt in the Tora Dojo Association style of karate, and has taught children’s and women’s classes. She is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn.