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Intergenerational relationships matter

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Few people would claim that the spirit of intergenerational cooperation is better left behind in the past. If anything, this sense of empathy and shared purpose is what we most need to try and cultivate in today's post-Industrial society.

Adam
Johnson

When was the last time you had a meaningful interaction with someone significantly younger or older than yourself?

Relationships that cross age boundaries may be rare, but they are becoming increasingly important. As life expectancy increases and baby boomers retire "en masse," the senior services sector is attracting younger workers and bringing different generations together in unexpected ways. One new challenge in senior care settings is that younger employees often don't fully understand the needs, tastes, and sensibilities of the seniors they are serving. In turn, seniors may find the dress, vocabulary and manners of younger employees difficult to understand. This disconnect is often the result of what sociologists refer to as a lifelong pattern of "age segregation."

Age segregation begins early. It is a formal characteristic of our education system, where we're placed in age-specific classes from the moment we enter kindergarten. We intentionally learn to develop close bonds with our peers. Unintentionally, we learn to think of different age groups as profoundly "other." There may be benefits to this kind of circumscribed collegiality, but there are also missed opportunities.

In an article published last year in the Boston Globe, "What Age Segregation Does to America," columnist Leon Neyfakh describes missed intergenerational opportunities and their costs: "Kids, the research indicates, develop important skills by interacting with adults and making friends of different ages, while the elderly have been shown to benefit from spending time around children. There is also evidence that age segregation can affect the economic well-being of a community by making people of different age groups blind to each other's needs."

Neyfakh traces the seeds of age segregation in America to an unlikely source: the Industrial Revolution. Drawing on research from professor Howard Chudacoff, author of "How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in America," he compares typical American lifestyles before and after the Industrial Revolution. Before the shift, Neyfakh writes that "generations often worked side by side, and kids and adults got their entertainment at the same county fairs. Schoolchildren, meanwhile, were often assigned to classes based on how much they knew rather than when they were born." After the Industrial Revolution and its new emphasis on clock time, factory work days and efficiency, along with resulting child labor laws, age played an increasingly defining role in all aspects of life.

Few people would claim that the spirit of intergenerational cooperation is better left behind in the past. If anything, this sense of empathy and shared purpose is what we most need to try and cultivate in today's post-Industrial society.

Promoting intergenerational programs

One way to bridge generation gaps is to provide formal, structured opportunities for interaction across age boundaries. Church communities have long provided and fostered this sense of community. According to John Roberto, President of Lifelong Faith Associates, "Christian commitment is formed and strengthened as persons develop relationships and actively participate in intergenerational faith communities that teach, model and live out the communities' beliefs." Lifelong Faith Associates promotes intergenerational faith formation in churches across New England, advocating for more mixed-age Sunday school classes, service projects, social events, church-wide service days and community involvement.

This type of involvement is vital, not just for the participants but also for the essence of the church experience. In their book "Intergenerational Faith Formation," authors Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross point out, ''To experience authentic Christian community and reap the unique blessings of intergenerationality, the generations must be together regularly and often -- infants to octogenarians."

There is also much potential for collaboration between churches and secular entities, such as volunteer organizations, schools and non-profit organizations that bring children and seniors together for social good. Temple University in Pennsylvania seems ahead of the game with their Intergenerational Center. This entire program is designed to "mobilize people of all ages to support one another and address critical social issues in their communities." Nationwide, organizations like Senior Corps offers many opportunities for seniors to engage in service projects and interact with younger people.

Everyone benefits from intergenerational exposure. Children develop confidence, empathy and other social skills through their interactions with older adults. Seniors have the opportunity to share wisdom, break out of patterns of isolation, and stay informed about the rapidly changing world around them. Research published in the Journal of Urban Health found that a group of seniors who regularly volunteered with children experienced improvements in memory, balance, and were more likely to maintain a healthy weight. These benefits were likely due to the increase in physical activity and mental stimulation that resulted from a routine of volunteering.

If you are interested in reaching out to younger generations, the following tips might help get you started:

-- Volunteer as a tutor or a "class grandparent at a school, through a literacy program, or any other mentoring program. Consider volunteering with Senior Corps. (www.nationalservice.gov/programs/senior-corps)

-- Ask about opportunities within your church community to get involved with volunteer or intergenerational activities.

-- If you're looking for a retirement community or long-term care, consider places in which intergenerational activities are featured prominently in the programs offering.

-- Keep an open mind. Try to be curious rather than judgmental when encountering generational differences.

A more fully intergenerational society can only be possible when make the effort to adjust our attitudes. Next time you catch yourself shying away from a conversation with someone younger or older than yourself, think again. If necessary, pretend the Industrial Revolution never happened, and take the plunge! A simple, civil conversation could be the first step toward greater change.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

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