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How to Build an Amazing Intergenerational Friendship

As this pair of skaters shows, heart matters more than age

Four years ago, Penny Jacobs approached Erik Wardenaar as he shoveled out a large skating oval on Minneapolis’ Cedar Lake. She asked an unexpected question: “Might I join you to skate? I’m too old to shovel.”

The two have glided together around that oval every winter since, their age differences quickly melting away. Erik is 54. Penny is 88.

They’ve come to appreciate the beauty of a multigenerational friendship.

“The benefit of older friends is that they have perspective and knowledge,” Erik says.

(MORE: The Value of Having Friends Older Than You)

Penny also treasures their serendipitous and open-hearted connection, which began when she headed to the lake a block from her home, seeking a respite from caring for her ailing husband.

“He was so nice to me,” Penny says of Erik. “He’s the type of gentleman who looks at your personality and not at your hairdo.”

They quickly learned they had much in common. “We both have an addiction to the outdoors,” Penny says.

Neither cares much for TV. Both share a love of carpentry.

And skating? It’s not a sport to this duo. It’s a passion.

(MORE: The Joys of New Friends)

Making A Place For Penny

Penny got her first pair of hand-me-down skates from her older sister at age 5. They were too big, so she stuffed handkerchiefs into the toes. She taught school for 37 years, was married to Sol for 65 years and reared four children. Sol died three years ago.

Erik grew up in the Netherlands, longing for cold weather. “Winter doesn’t come very often,” he says. “It’s kind of a special treat. As a child, you always skated through the countryside.”

A champion marathon speed skater, Erik moved to the Twin Cities in 1991 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Married and the father of a young-adult son, he works at the University’s Bell Museum, where he oversees the fungal collection.

Creating this 300-meter skating oval takes an hour or two, sometimes on 35-below-degree days. Erik used to create ovals on other lakes. Now he creates one only on Cedar Lake, “so that Penny will have a place to skate.”

Erik also brings out a chair so Penny has a place to rest and to sit as she laces up her hockey skates. Yes. Hockey skates. Then off they go. “It’s the closest thing to flying,” Erik says. Penny agrees, although she jokes, “I slow-skate.”

Beyond The Ice

Over the years, the duo has become friends off the ice, too. Penny has hosted Erik for tea to warm him up. One of her daughters speaks Dutch, so Penny brought her over to talk with Erik.

Erik and his wife, Sara, have shared dinners with Penny and attended a recent “musical soiree” at Penny’s home, where Sara and Penny played a duet.

“I’m always the oldest,” Penny says of the musical evenings, “but I remember when I used to be the youngest.”

Remembering your own passages and appreciating all life stages are key to multigenerational friendships, says Irene S. Levine, a psychologist, author (she often blogs for Next Avenue about travel) and creator of TheFriendshipBlog.com.

“The strongest friendships are reciprocal, where both people can give to each other,” Levine says. “They can be very intimate and are not bound by living next door or working in the same office.”

Missed Friendship Opportunities

Sadly, Levine says, too many of us never consider the benefits of seeking out intergenerational friendships. “People tend to look toward people who are just like them,” she says, “people with similar situations, in similar age groups, doing similar things. That really limits your pool when it comes to making friends.”

(MORE: 5 Ways Women Can Find New Friends After 60)

Levine can’t imagine what her life would have been like without one of her dearest friends, who started out as her elementary school teacher.

“Over time, the age difference disappeared,” Levine says. “She was my mentor, then, later on, I provided mentorship to her. She came to my first wedding and influenced my career and the way I think about life.”

Penny believes that, by sharing of herself, “I am giving Erik the benefit of my experiences.” By continuing to add new challenges to her own life, she continues to inspire him.

“I’m trying to encourage my young friends to try new things and not spend time on the Facebook and computer,” says Penny, who took up playing guitar three years ago. “I tell my younger friends: Talk. Communicate. Smile. Share. The wonderful fact is that we’re alive.”

Erik looks forward to the day when he can offer to younger friends what Penny has given to him: “The feeling that you can be a role model and show them aspects of life they might not have yet encountered. I like to teach very much and I plan to teach my speed-skating skills to a younger person, so they will be able to enjoy this sport as much as I do.”

Erik, who won a 50K race on Minnesota’s Lake Bemidji in 2010, says he is skating better now than ever. But he doesn’t mind slowing down for his friend, who wears an orange winter jacket to honor his Dutch heritage.

“He must think, ‘She’s the oldest skater who ever skated my oval,’” Penny said delightedly. “And I think that’s the truth.”

6 Tips For Making Intergenerational Friendships

It’s easy to find friends outside your age group. Here are six ideas, some based on Penny and Erik’s friendship:

1. Go where fun people are. Join a community choir. Sign up for a wine club. Become your neighborhood’s block leader. You’ll likely meet people of all ages with shared passions. Penny met Erik by simply walking up to him as he shoveled out a skating oval.

2. Look around your office with fresh eyes. Have you been avoiding conversations with certain co-workers because you think they’re too young or too old? Invite them to lunch or for coffee and prove yourself wrong. You might find your best friend there, or at least someone with whom you have lots in common.

3. Seek out opportunities to mentor and to be mentored. Tapping into your stores of wisdom is a gift for your mentee and gratifying for you. Penny loves sharing her home, friends and life experiences with Erik. But she also enjoys learning about Erik’s home country and his unusual work at the university.

4. Embrace differences, don’t fret about them. Penny knows that she’ll never skate as fast as Erik. Who cares? They’re both out on the ice doing what they love. Erik admires Penny’s political activism and her desire to keep learning new things.

5. Include your family in the fun. Share your friends with your parents and your kids. This is a great way to celebrate and normalize intergenerational friendships and encourage the development of many more.

6. Get rid of the kids’ table during holiday gatherings. Or, better, go sit at it.

Gail Rosenblum is the author of 'A Hundred Lives Since Then: Essays on Motherhood, Marriage, Mortality & More.' She is a columnist for Minneapolis’ Star Tribune, where she co-creates a monthly feature on friendship, one of which inspired this piece.

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