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Mend the Gap

Opening yourself up, listening closely and having more fun are keys to making meaningful connections across the generations

By Cynthia Orange

On my 76th birthday, my family gave me the inter-generational trivia game "Mind the Gap." It was a fun way for my baby boomer husband and me to connect with our Gen X daughter and son-in-law and our 17-year-old twin "zoomer" grandsons from Generation Z.

An intergenerational family playing a game together. Next Avenue
Thanks to longevity and health care, members of seven generations are alive today, presenting us with rich opportunities for intergenerational connectivity.  |  Credit: Getty

Lately, I've been thinking of the game's title as something more: a call to action, a reminder to pay attention and tend to the spaces that separate us before a generation "gap" becomes an unbridgeable chasm.

It could even be a friendly dare to those of us who primarily interact within our own peer group to reach out to someone younger or older with whom we don't usually connect.

Intergenerational Interaction

Thanks to longevity and health care, members of seven generations are alive today: the Greatest Generation (born between 1901 and 1924), the Silent Generation (1925 to '45), boomers (1946 to '64), Generation X (1965 to '79), Millennials (1980 to '94), Generation Z (1995 to 2012) and Generation Alpha (2013 to 2025). This unprecedented situation presents rich opportunities for intergenerational connectivity.

Much has been written about what the German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called "generativity" since he coined the term in 1950 to describe the importance of "guiding the next generation." I like to think of it as paying it forward — sharing our gifts, knowledge and experience to effect positive changes that reach beyond legacy or mentorship.

When we take time to foster relationships with those younger and older than us, we often discover that we can get as much as we give.

While this may sound like a selfless act, when we take time to foster relationships with those younger and older than us, we often discover that we can get as much as we give. It's mutuality in action.

Many experts say these types of connections often result in better physical and mental health for all concerned. Interaction between different age groups can also help dispel negative generational stereotypes.

Where to Begin?

I think it starts by paying attention, being curious and opening ourselves to everyday opportunities for intergenerational connections. Here are some ideas:

  • Be present and caring. For example, a Gen X mom and Facebook friend posted how a teacher deeply upset her 12-year-old by belittling the student's request to be referred to as "they." I sent this mom a private message offering support and thanking her and her child for speaking out, saying those of us in older generations often need guidance in these areas.

    She responded immediately, opening a lovely dialogue about how best to support youth who struggle with gender identification, depression and feelings of not belonging. "Be present," she said. "The best way to make a kid feel valued is to hear them."
  • Dust off your world-view lens. This intergenerational conversation about gender and pronouns is but one example of how we might bridge generational divides. We can ask questions, educate ourselves about cultural differences, and look for points of connection. While many of us might need guidance with pronoun sensitivity and current slang, we know how it hurts to feel left out or ignored. Think of it as traveling to a foreign country. Do your homework, study the terrain, language and culture. If you are lost, ask a zoomer for directions.
  • Practice compassion. According to the American Psychological Association 2023 "Trends Report," today's youth are facing a mental health crisis. Even before COVID, youth depression and suicide rates began to soar, and they worsened during the pandemic. As if social isolation, academic disruption and household worries about the deadly virus and finances weren't enough, upticks in racial and political unrest, climate chaos, gun violence and online bullying added to young people's stress.

    "COVID-19's unique conditions may have created a new kind of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one rooted in fear of what might happen instead of what has happened," stated clinical psychologist Maria Abenes, author of a Psychiatric Times article, "Teens in America: How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Shaping the Next Generation."

    If a child is troubled, it follows that their parents are also stressed — so extra patience, kind words, loving gestures and a listening ear go a long way in terms of cross-generational support.

    When we listen attentively, we convey the message, "This is important; you are important." Web sites like provide information and a variety of resources that can help us gain a better understanding of the problems contemporary families face so we are better able to befriend them.
  • Get more involved in your community. Learn who your local officials and community leaders are and communicate with them. Thank them for their accomplishments and service. Share your concerns. Support your schools and local businesses. Use the library. Stay current on local issues that affect different groups within your community. Choose an issue and find ways to get involved with others who are working on it.
  • Share your knowledge and network. The owner of our neighborhood coffee shop provides hot chocolate and cookies and a weekly gathering place where retired college professors offer free tutoring to students from second grade through college.

    Check your county's web site or neighborhood Web sites to find ways to share your knowledge and experience. Take an active interest in what a grandchild or younger person is studying. Share your knowledge or resources if appropriate or invited to do so.

    Sometimes "bridging the gap" means becoming the bridge. The longer we live, the more chances we have to be an intermediary for intergenerational connections. For example, my partner and I recently put our millennial grandniece in touch with a Gen X friend in the same profession; the Gen Xer turned out to be an excellent resource in her job search. What bridges can you build?
  • Playfulness. We often forget the important role playfulness has in fostering healthy and more joy-filled intergenerational connections. People from five generations, ranging in age from 14 to 88, play pickle ball on our local court. I used to play online Scrabble with my 100-year-old buddy Emily. We could add a message when we took our turn, so it was a great way to check in with her.

    Erikson described play as "the most natural method of self-healing that childhood affords." Play can relieve stress and help us all to forge richer connections. Often, a casual conversation in a relaxed atmosphere can be the foundation for future and deeper interconnectedness.

    Whether it's a card game or board game like "Mind the Gap," taking a group walk, playing music or shooting pool like we used to do with my mom and now do with our kids, I encourage you to remember to lighten up, laugh and play.

Whatever your path, proceed with open heart, good intentions and love, meeting those of other generations where they are on their own life journeys — those fertile places where playfulness, passion, creativity, idealism and activism reside.

I have witnessed the magic that can happen when seasoned wisdom and experience mix with youthful, out-of-the box thinking. It is a fluid place where people of all ages can dream and march together, creating change and birthing hope; a place where legacy becomes a canvas on which futures can be painted.

Cynthia Orange is the St. Paul, Minnesota-based author of “Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving” and “Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD.” She co-facilitates a caregivers’ support group, and she and her husband, a Vietnam combat veteran, often speak to audiences about the effects of trauma. Read More
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