When I was a young girl, the person with whom I was closest was my grandfather-my mother’s father. We had so many memorable moments together; inseparable we were. I was his shadow, learning so much about him, myself and life. We would often sit together on the roof of one of my grandparents’ cars in the driveway and talk under the night sky about anything and everything. Never mind that he would often speak in parables or anecdotes; many life lessons were learned. He helped me to remember to see the ‘bigger’ picture. And, enough said-I got those messages.
Our relationship was never antagonistic or wrought with differences. Conversations with him was like Freud’s ‘talking cure’. We talked It was mutually respectful and that fed my respect for older adults, in general. My grandfather understood me and as a child onward to my teen years, vice versa. I may not have always liked or agreed with all of his perspectives, but respected his views nonetheless. He was my best friend.
Why is it that youth complain that ‘parents don’t understand’? Though they feel disconnected from parents, among adult relatives in their lives, there tends to be a grandparent with whom they share strong connections. Is it that parents are too close to their own youth, past mistakes, regrets and are yet to forgive themselves? Is it that grandparents have already reconciled with their past, don’t feel the need or responsibility to ‘correct’ in their grandchildren’s lives. Maybe, a grandparent, an older adults’ perspectives reflect attitudes of marvel, gratitude and they mainly feel a sense of satisfaction in connecting with young folk….AND perhaps young people may sense that.
We may not be able to answer this conundrum with certainty. But in practice, why not use these wonderful intergenerational connections to everyone’s advantage. Bring young people into spaces with older adults, leverage influence and commonalities and build deepened respectful relationships. It constitutes a win-win.
The concept of shared sites or shared spaces is one that envisions intentionally designed places that provide services and programs to multiple generations concurrently. Fostering meaningful relationships, in these spaces participants engage in planned intergenerational activities and informal encounters.
Besides offering opportunities for youth and grandparents and those in-between, to become more familiar with one another, these spaces are also cost-efficient. No need for separate spaces that are population specific when planning incorporates a more inclusive environment. It is all in the way we plan services.
Over the past year and a half, the world has been shaken up by this pandemic. Lives have been lost, economies have been severely impacted and existing inequities have been highlighted. Physical contact has been restricted, public venues were shut down and so much fear of the spread of COVID-19 has brought rise to a ‘loneliness’ pandemic.
Healing from this pandemic requires that new models be put in place, particularly for young and older adults, with intentionality of focus to build relationships that are meaningful, not only to provide services.
Isolation is the crux of all human suffering and human connection is the antidote.
Loneliness is a subjective experience; it is defined as the discrepancy between one’s desired and perceived social relations. Considered a significant public health issue, the harmful effects of loneliness are well-documented (Cacioppo, 2008; Murthy, 2020). Research indicates that loneliness negatively impacts stress hormones, immune functioning, cardiovascular health, and psychological well-being. It can increase the risk of clinical depression, dementia, and premature death (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).
The need for human connection is a biological and social imperative; loneliness is a warning signal to satisfy that need by seeking out other human beings (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008).
While the pandemic continues to present unprecedented challenges, the experience has also highlighted the importance of intergenerational connections within both families and communities. Despite the challenges, intergenerational practitioners and champions around the world are responding with passion, enthusiasm, creativity, and perseverance to maintain and expand connections across generations and to meet emerging and evolving needs in their communities.
For example, programs that already connected the generations continued to do so. Programs that had to suspend in person activities, boldly modified to virtual settings and remote interactions. Programs expanded their goals to meet the ever-changing needs of their stakeholders and community. New programs were created for remote engagement, and in person meetings under strict safety protocols. Some programs used computers and virtual platforms to connect the generations, while others engaged low-tech solutions like phone calls, grab n go boxes, snail mail, at home deliveries and window visits.
Intergenerational programs have been addressing a wide range of individual, family and community needs amplified by the pandemic. Formal and informal initiatives emerged to help students learn at home and older adults self-quarantining. More grandparents, other relatives and close family friends stepped in to provide care and support for the children in their lives- including full-time care giving, child care, tutoring, meal preparation and just fun activities.
Conversations started taking place between young people and older adults centered on race, social justice, and racial equity with projects and activities to address structural racism. Young people began helping older people with shopping, access to technology and most recently vaccines. Younger and older people increased access to healthy organic foods due to intergenerational community gardens.
A handful of researchers and practitioners have published their findings on intergenerational programming during this pandemic. A commentary on positive youth development discussed how youth benefit from connections to adults, grandparents and other extended family involved in skill-building activities with opportunities for leadership in the community and/or in the home. An intergenerational program found that graduate students began thinking of the older adult partners as friends. 66% of students chose to continue their relationships, They reported that regular talks with their partner reduced their feelings of loneliness and boredom while they also gained a sense of purpose during stay at home orders.
There are a variety of models for shared sites involving different age groups. Depending upon specific goals and objectives, within settings, planning shared sites is a perfect design strategy for intergenerational engagement in the post-pandemic 21st Century.
Fostering connections and bringing generations together is gaining momentum. In spite of talks about generation ‘gaps’, we can decrease those perceived empty spaces and related disconnects through meaningful connections fostered in shared spaces.