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Intergenerational Programs: A Vaccination against Ageism and a Prescription for Longevity

Andrea J. Fonte Weaver January 14, 2019
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Lilian, age 70, has lunch with her daughter at the restaurant. When the server approaches, she orders a burger and fries. Yet, the young waitress turns to the daughter and asks “How does she want the burger cooked?” Ageism at work. Invisibility of aging—personified.

Sam works a summer job and the age of 16 decides to start an IRA. But, he cannot because he’s not old enough. Another form of ageism at work.

Ageism. It cuts both ways. It divides. It is invasive and insidious. In children as young as age three, we see the roots of ageism in their retreating from older adults and not making eye contact. By age 10, children depict their negative attitudes about growing old in their artwork. The “old people” are often portrayed as small (a form of invisibility of aging) with an assistive device and alongside negative adjectives like “smelly”.

Research has shown both older adults and adolescents internalize this socio-cultural ageism, defining themselves by the negative stereotype which results in health and longevity deficits. On the other hand, positive attitudes about our aging can extend our lives by 7.5 years.

Ageism is exasperated by the age-segregation we are now experiencing. Many of us spend our days with people in the same age cohort—from infant childcare rooms to nursing homes and every stage in between. This has been exacerbated over the past 50 years by many changes in our families and social networks, economic and work habits, use of technology, and the mass media. One of the ramifications of this age-segregation is that social isolation is on the rise, especially among older adults and adolescents, with the health detriments equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

The aging network is uniquely positioned to make intergenerational (IG) engagement a priority. Intergenerational programs provide intentional opportunities for any skipped, non-adjacent generations to engage in activities that support the well-being of all involved. When professionals in the longevity field unite generations in strong IG programs, they:

  • Create opportunities for older adults to engage with young people which fosters purpose and meaning. Results include improved well-being and friendships that curb isolation, as well as positive real-life stories about growing old.
  • Inspire young people to enter longevity careers. After having experienced a rich relationship with someone 65+, youth are more likely to collaborate with and advocate for older adults in their own lives.
  • Support young people’s academic development by extending classroom learning, as well as socio-emotional development, especially with face-to-face communication skills.
  • Empower elders to become advocates and champions for younger people, improving their lives while stopping reverse ageism.

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Professionals in aging may take the following concrete steps to support intergenerational approaches:

  • Foster IG-focused leadership. For example, convene a leadership team or task force that draws from constituencies of diverse ages which will strengthen all programming. Think teachers & professors; librarians; staff from community centers, senior centers, affordable housing and assisted living; representatives from community groups including the League of Women Voters, Kiwanis; unions. Having at least five members representing younger and older generations is key to success.
  • Provide opportunities for both casual and formal intergenerational encounters. Start a public campaign encouraging people to get to know their neighbors or develop one-time programs to commemorate a historical event. Implement a short-term program like the award-winning BRIDGES program used in schools. Long-term programs include intergenerational choruses that meet weekly for the year.  
  • Establish policies, procedures, and practices that support IG relationships. Possibilities include: having a mandatory line item for IG training and/or programming; including “IG initiatives” as a priority area; give awards for IG leadership.
  • Commit to share space and resources. Day health programs could share their van service with preschoolers; Senior buildings could open up their foyer for chamber group practices; a school and “senior center” may join forces to build a new “lifelong learning center.”
  • Cultivate an atmosphere of age-inclusion. This is circular because the previous actions lead to age-inclusion but the culture fosters the actions.  Cultural shifts can happen when people identify their commonalities across ages. Begin meetings by asking people to share a highlight of their week or something for which they are grateful. In another example, “intergenerational engagement” or “lifelong learning” can be added as a core value. A commitment can be made to hire workers of different ages or secure board members from each decade of life.

A comprehensive, multifaceted approach is needed to create a truly age-integrated world where people of all ages are valued and are interdependent. Professionals in the longevity field must build the infrastructure and lead the way. Through intergenerational pathways and opportunities, we can create places where growing up and growing old is both supported and celebrated.

Want more from Andrea J. Fonte? Here’s the book she recommends to longevity market professionals.

Andrea J. Fonte Weaver

Andrea J. Fonte Weaver is Founder & Executive Director of Bridges Together, a nonprofit providing training and tools on the art and science of intergenerational engagement for individuals, longevity professionals, educators and communities. She can be reached at Andrea@BridgesTogether.org and on Twitter @BridgesTogether.

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