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Fostering Positive Connections Through Intergenerational Friendships

In the 2009 animated film “Up,” an enthusiastic young Wilderness Explorer becomes an unexpected stowaway on an older man’s journey, and along the way the two develop a heartwarming friendship. The final scene beautifully illustrates the bond the two have developed, depicting them eating ice cream, counting cars, and enjoying one another’s company.

While the story is fictional, the duo’s experience mirrors what research has shown: intergenerational relationships offer myriad benefits for both age groups. Children and young adults gain an additional positive role model and the possibility of cultivating a new interest, older adults can find purpose and connection while giving back in a meaningful way, and both groups get to talk with, learn from, and share ideas with someone who has a different perspective and life experiences.

These benefits are no secret: according to a national report released in 2017, more than 90% of adults surveyed acknowledged the benefits of intergenerational relationships for all involved.
Generations United, which was founded in 1986 to advocate for children, youth and older adults, also reports that 2 in 3 Americans would like to spend more time with people outside their age groups – so it’s no wonder that organizations and groups around the country have implemented programs to purposely foster these connections.

One non-profit organization, Seniors4Seniors, connects high school students with senior adult mentors, who develop a relationship with the student and share their life experiences. Some programs are even more immersive; St. Ann Center in Milwaukee, Wisc. provides care and services for people of, quite literally, all ages, with participants ranging in age from 6 weeks to more than 100 years old. Not only do the children and adults interact socially throughout the day, they also participate in a variety of activities together, including art, exercise and music.

Residents at GreenFields of Geneva also experience the myriad benefits of intergenerational connections through robust partnerships the vibrant retirement community maintains with local community groups and organizations, including colleges and elementary schools.

A new program launched recently with Aurora University has proved especially rewarding for all involved. In 2019, GreenFields Geneva started an internship with the university’s Therapeutic Recreation Program, in which groups of students engaged residents in a planned activity. The program was such a positive experience for both parties that when the pandemic hit, GreenFields staff decided to move to a virtual option in which students conducted a series of four virtual life stories interviews with residents via Zoom.

“The students would ask questions about the residents’ childhoods, adolescence, careers, hobbies, etc.,” said GreenFields life enrichment manager Julie Jug, who conceived of and coordinates the new program. “The seniors got to reminisce about their childhoods and tell the younger generation their stories. Students found it to be interesting and informative to spend time with the seniors. The students were so engaged.”

One student developed such a rapport with the resident he interviewed that the two are planning to go fishing together, and one GreenFields resident was so moved by the experience that she plans to write a series of letters sharing her stories with her grandson.

Experts offer some tips for successful cultivation of intergenerational relationships, whether it is a grandparent spending time with a much-loved grandchild, a mentor sharing wisdom and life experience with a mentee, or retirement community residents enjoying a visit from local elementary school students.

  • Let the younger generation take the lead– ask them what they would like to do, and choose activities that encourage
    confidence by building on their strengths. This could include playing music,
    making art, doing a craft, coding, working in a garden, or creating a
    podcast or video together. Perhaps the younger person can even record the
    older adult’s life story.
  • Encourage the children to ask questions – older people have a wealth of
    knowledge and experience to share! You may also wish to opt for some
    activities that allow the older generation to share
    this expertise.
  • Can’t get together in person? Get creative! Grandparents have embraced new ways to connect with their grandchildren throughout the pandemic, whether it is
    reading a story, singing songs or working on homework together during a video chat; taking a virtual “tour” of a museum or watching a livestream concert together; or playing board games online.

Developing and maintaining strong intergenerational relationships confers enormous benefits for all involved, so be sure to embrace any opportunity that comes your way!

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