Eldera: The New Global Intergenerational Mentoring Program
Why the pandemic has made it more valuable for older adults and kids
When S. Jay Olshansky, 66, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, virtually met math and science whiz Hyunseung Lee, 11, in May, something "sparked," he says. "It was special. He just reminded me of myself at that age," Olshansky adds.
Olshansky, a renowned authority on gerontology and increasing healthspans, was connected with Lee, who lives outside of Seoul, South Korea, through Eldera, a new, free global mentorship program. Eldera pairs adults 60 and over with kids — mostly between 8 and 13 — to nurture and boost intergenerational relationships.
How Eldera Works
Eldera stands for "era of the elders," says its co-founder Dana Griffin, 38, a former data and advertising executive who grew up in the Transylvania region of Romania. She launched the service in March with Jules Olleon, 33, an engineer with expertise in artificial intelligence, security and user privacy.
"We can engage and learn with no textbooks."
Parents initiate the mentoring connection by applying to Eldera. Once younger and older people are matched, Eldera brings them together for virtual sessions over Zoom. Eldera provides the mentor and the mentee's parents with a video link for their conversations. Most mentors spend between 30 and 90 minutes per week talking with their mentees.
"When you are a little scientist like I was at that age, you have nonstop questions," Olshansky, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, says. "You need somebody to answer them, and your parents, honestly, often don't have the time. I really needed a mentor. I used to have crazy burning questions that my parents couldn't handle. And I would call scientific organizations and say I have an idea and I want to run it by one of the scientists. They would usually connect me to somebody who would patiently listen."
The Birth of an Eldera Child's Book on Math
Olshansky's bi-weekly conversations with Lee took off when he asked the boy what most interested him about science. "Mathematics," says Lee.
"What is it about mathematics that you find so fascinating?" Olshansky asked. "And Lee used the word beautiful. Coming from an eleven-year-old kid, that's a bit unusual. I said, 'You clearly are seeing something that I'm not seeing. Why don't you help other kids see mathematics through your eyes? Write it down. And keep it simple.'"
And Lee did. With editorial guidance from Olshansky, in October, he published the book "Beautiful Theorems That Changed Math." All profits go to a pediatric cancer organization.
Why did Lee's parents sign their son up for Eldera?
"Hyunseung has a high interest in science and math, and school classes did not satisfy his intellectual curiosity about these subjects," says Jinyong Lee, his mother. "Professor Olshansky has broadened the horizons of Hyunseung's creative thinking with his passion and by helping him publish a mathematics book. In this process, Hyunseung took pride in himself."
Her son offers another reason he converses with Olshansky regularly: "The good thing about Eldera is that we can talk to the teacher freely," he says. "He is a very kind teacher. We can engage and learn with no textbooks... Professor Olshansky can fill the gap with my questions and help me fully understand."
The Inspiration for Eldera
For Griffin, connecting with elders is the spine of her own story. She was raised in Romania by her grandparents.
"I developed a sensibility for surrounding myself with elder mentors from a young age," says Griffin, a 2020 Encore Gen2Gen Innovation Fellow. "I don't know anything different. When I was little, I would sit in a huge cherry tree and eat cherries with my cat while grandpa was sitting at the bottom of the tree reading me stories."
When Griffin moved to the U.S. in 2001 to attend The University of Akron, she made it a habit to reach out to older mentors.
"I thought everyone navigated life with mentors," she says. "Even now, I have two ninety-year-old ladies who tell me how to date."
But it was the death from brain cancer of one of her closest mentors three years ago that spurred Griffin's new path.
The Pandemic Boosts the Mentoring Need
"I realized the gift I have been given by mentors," she notes. "Since then, I have been obsessed with solving the problem of how to tap into wisdom of elders and put it to good use for the next generation. COVID exacerbated this issue and brought up an opportunity."
Griffin believes the pandemic "surfaced the acute global need for human connection, for the parents and for the mentors."
Griffin and Olleon self-funded the startup with around $100,000, most of it earmarked for building out the technology and conducting background checks on the mentors to ensure safety for the Eldera kids.
"We provide the platform, the tools and the resources, and the mentors bring the magic," Griffin says.
For now, Eldera mentors are U.S.-based. Griffin is coy about the number of pairings she has matched so far, saying that it's under 2,000. The young learners are in 20 countries including Brazil, Germany, Kenya and South Korea.
There are currently 122 parents on the wait list for mentors.
The Model for Eldera
The model for Eldera can be traced to Dr. Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. Fried is one of the first scientists whose research documented that connecting the generations is good for kids and older adults.
In 1996, Fried teamed up with Marc Freedman (who later became founder and CEO of Encore.org and is a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging) to launch the volunteer program Experience Corps, now run by the AARP Foundation. It trains volunteers 55 and older to tutor children in economically disadvantaged schools.
At the root of that initiative is psychologist Erik Erikson's principle of generativity which says that when one generation grows older, it passes knowledge onto a younger one.
Other intergenerational mentoring platforms include Encore.org's Generation to Generation; the pandemic-inspired global volunteer groups Big and Mini and Sharing Smiles, an initiative of the nonprofit Empowering the Ages; the Boombox Collaboratory; CIRKEL (founded by Next Avenue Influencer in Aging Charlotte Japp) and CareerVillage.org, which connects underrepresented youth with volunteering professionals who answer career questions.
How Mentoring Benefits Both Generations
Encore.org has a useful article on its site about these and other organizations connecting generations during the pandemic.
"Research shows that when organizations bring older and younger people together, great things happen for both generations," says Eunice Lin Nichols, vice president for innovation at Encore.org and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. "What Eldera brings to the table is the potential to bring these matches to scale, making a caring adult available to any student who needs one."
Says Olshansky: "My biggest challenge is that I wish I had more time to spend with Hyunseung. It's extraordinarily rewarding to see a child experience the wonders of science."