(This article is the 20th in a weekly Next Avenue series, The Future of Aging: Realizing the Potential of Longevity, published by the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. Links to the rest of the series appear at the end of this article.)
As America ages, we must change how we see older adults and their ability to engage intergenerationally with their younger peers. The future of aging can only be enhanced if we recognize that our success and the national interest depend on connecting generations for good.
True intergenerational programs are, as Nancy Henkin of Temple University says, “not nice, but necessary.” When implemented correctly and intentionally, intergenerational programs can provide a multiplier effect in which both children, especially those from low-income families and communities, and older adults benefit, and transformative, measurable results can be created for society as a whole.
The benefits of intergenerational programs can flow both ways. There are countless examples of younger people assisting older adults in areas like access to technology or working on behalf of seniors to address social or economic isolation. But here we’ll focus on intergenerational programs that engage older adults as resources to address the challenges faced by youth.
A Day Care Center in an Assisted-Living Facility
Consider Ebenezer Ridges Day Care Center in Burnsville, Minn. This nondescript establishment is recognized locally as the preeminent program for toddlers and has a waiting list that befits its status, despite a small nonprofit budget. To what does Ridges attribute its success? The center became special when it decided to move inside an assisted-living facility. Now, the kids have daily access to surrogate grandparents to teach and support them.
Intergenerational organizations believe the best way to achieve a societal goal in an underresourced environment is to find an underutilized resource. Here, the underutilized resource is older citizens.
There’s AARP Experience Corps, which sought to create a program to improve the reading skills of children from impoverished neighborhoods. To do so, it decided to mobilize older people as tutors in the schools. Students working with Experience Corps members have shown 60 percent gains in critical literacy skills compared to those without access to these older volunteers, and the boost in their reading skills is equivalent to placing them in classrooms with 40 percent fewer students, according to researchers from Washington University in St. Louis.
Where Older Adults and Foster Kids Live Together
And then there’s Bridge Meadows, a housing community in Portland, Ore., for families adopting children out of foster care. There, the child welfare specialists believed that the best way to increase the odds of success for these vulnerable families was to bring in seniors to live in the community. The seniors agree to help these new families, tutoring the kids, doing housework and serving as respite care for often-overwhelmed parents. The long-term success rates for these families exceed other traditional foster care support service models, and other states are eager to replicate the Bridge Meadows model.
In the case of these organizations, and countless others, the success rates outpace those of their similarly intentioned and funded peers. The difference is that more modestly performing organizations have yet to embrace the idea of using the resource of older adults to help achieve their ends.
Underutilized Resource: Older Citizens
The intergenerational organizations subscribe to a Moneyball-like belief that the best way to achieve a societal goal in an underresourced environment is to find an underutilized and undervalued resource and use it to one’s advantage. Here, the underutilized resource is older citizens.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to use every resource at our disposal to fight society’s most intractable and relentless challenges. By utilizing the talents of older adults and investing in intergenerational solutions, we can make our world a better place. The data overwhelmingly shows that when we engage seniors and young people around a specific outcome measure, good things happen.
Laura Carstensen of Stanford University has shown that older people are uniquely skilled in creating close relationships, especially with children. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry has proven that children with an older adult in their lives are less likely to have behavioral or psychiatric problems. Children learn better from older adults.
Possibly Our Kids’ Best Chance
This may be our kids’ best chance — to learn from a caring older adult who not only has “been there and done that,” but has a biological and instinctive need to give the next generation the best opportunity to succeed.
Finally, when we engage older adults and kids together — not merely to hearken back to an era that was not quite as intergenerational as we like to pretend but because it’s the proven way to get things done — we can demonstrate that our aging population is a resource to be utilized.
Our society should enlist older adults for the common good, and especially the advancement of our children. Ignoring our seniors is the equivalent of waiting for a natural resources to mature, mining it for a time, then throwing the resource away before it can provide its full benefit.
The future of aging can be bright if we find ways to bring our oldest and youngest citizens together for the betterment of our communities. It’s not just a nice idea. It’s necessary.
The first article in this series was A New Model for the Future of Aging. The second was Personalized Aging: Extending Lifespans and Healthspans. The third was Boomers: Less Tied to Friends and Family Than Others Are. The fourth was What It Will Take for the U.S. to Profit From the Longevity Dividend. The fifth was Work, Retirement and Financial Security in the 21st Century. The sixth was Technology, Aging and the Coming Fifth Wave. The seventh was 5 Course Corrections Needed for a Better Future of Aging. The eighth was Let’s Make the Most of the Intergenerational Opportunity. The ninth was How We Can Use Our Longer Lives to Do Good. The 10th was Building Cityscapes for Healthy Aging. The 11th was Aging in the ‘Right’ Place. The 12th was How to Make Longer Working Lives Work. The 13th was Four Freedoms That Will Define the Future of Aging. The 14th was The Future of Healthy Aging… Is Yesterday. The 15th was You’re Going to Get Old, So Think About It Now. The 16th was Does Purpose Only Benefit the Young? The 17th was How to Help Achieve Optimal Health for the Elderly. The 18th was How Higher Education Can Aid Life Transitions. The 19th was Seizing Longevity’s Competitive Advantages.