Intergenerational Relationships Provide Social, Emotional and Physical Benefits
The 1960s popularized the generation gap in America, which glared a public spotlight on the broad differences between youth and older adults, particularly in music, fashion and politics. Our culture is now age-segregated with diminished interaction between generations—a considerable contrast to societies through the ages where families lived in tight communities with grandparents and children often sharing the same home.
A couple decades ago, TV shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Waltons” portrayed the bond of older folks with their younger relatives (Opie knew better than to challenge Aunt Bee, and John-Boy showed his respect to Grandpa and Grandma and to those feisty Baldwin sisters). Today’s shows like “The Simpsons” and “Modern Family” model little of close-knit communication between generations. With our increasingly high-tech culture lacking in face-to-face interactions, does it really matter if seniors and young ones engage with each other?
Ongoing studies on intergenerational relationships are showing that it does. In schools where older adults regularly volunteer in classrooms, the children actually score higher in reading. Other research finds that children who interact with older adults show increased personal and social development. An impact study within Big Brothers Big Sisters revealed that young people involved in adult-youth mentoring programs were 52 percent less likely to skip school and 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs.
More than a decade ago, a biologist at the University of Iowa published his findings on fruit flies that became more physically fit and doubled their life span when living with younger fruit flies. Regarding humans, in a program involving Alzheimer’s patients and college students participating together in exercise sessions, the Alzheimer’s patients experienced a mood boost and held steady in cognitive decline.
“In our day-to-day elder care, we find that seniors who interact with babies, children, teens and college-age students are generally less depressed and more energetic,” said Dani Depetrillo, Right at Home Canada. “Breaking down the barriers between generations literally adds life to everyone’s years.”
The more the elderly spend time with the youth in their lives, the more both generations benefit. Increased social interaction between older and younger individuals brings out more smiles, which lowers stress, blood pressure and heart rate. Other overall health benefits to forming stronger relationships across the years include:
- Strengthened immune system. For both older and younger individuals, social interaction and physical activities reduce stress hormones and build the body’s natural defenses to fight off illness and disease.
- Increased skills and knowledge. Seniors learn about computer and technology innovations from youth to keep more engaged in society. Older adults share their wisdom and life experiences to mentor the younger.
- Decreased fears. Young children feel less fearful about being around older people and seniors develop less fear about aging and death.
- Greater emotional and social intelligence. Children and youth who interact with seniors develop greater communication and social skills and a more positive self-esteem. The intergenerational relationship fills a void of elders not having grandchildren or family near and the children benefit with the wisdom and stability of a new “grandparent” and role model.
- Renewed sense of purpose in life. Older adults feel less isolated and sense their continued usefulness to others and their community.
To create deeper multiage relationships, both seniors and youth can choose a number of activities to enjoy together. Playing board or computer games, cooking, storytelling, gardening, watching movies, discussing current events, and putting together photo albums and scrapbooks all form tighter bonds between generations. It’s important to be realistic about issues like seniors’ physical limitations and young ones’ shyness or hesitancies over bonding with older adults.
Despite the generation gap in their differences, seniors and youth can build mutually beneficial friendships that significantly affect their overall well-being today and tomorrow.