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Q&A: A Younger Professional’s Perspective on Intergenerational Programs

Stria Staff April 15, 2019

Emily Merritt is Director of Intergenerational Initiatives at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities We asked for her perspective on working with older adults.

Stria is creating a series of Q&As with young people working in the longevity market to elevate new perspectives and explore the views of future leaders in our field.

How do you think intergenerational programs contribute to improving the lives of older Americans?

The Alliance’s intergenerational initiative Second Acts for Strong Communities, produced evaluation data that joins a growing body of research demonstrating that when older adults engage in meaningful relationships with youth, they experience improvements in feelings of purpose, connection to their community, having opportunities to learn new things and an ability to pass knowledge to others.

What more could one ask for?

The data also shows the value of these relationships to younger counterparts and the organizations that serve them. Beyond the personal level of benefits, these programs also strengthen our entire communities. When relationships are built across generations, people’s biases begin to break down, understanding and empathy increase, and social cohesion (at a time of painful divides) thrives!

What do you think older people working in aging and the longevity market don’t understand younger people working (or studying to work) in the field?

I believe it’s a missed opportunity when challenges, strategies or areas of focus are framed as solely “older people issues.” The reality is that we all are aging, every single day, and the more we can connect “older people issues” to other generations, the more successful we’ll be as an aging society.

When we take an intergenerational approach, framing issues by how they impact all of us, versus a siloed, age-specific approach, we garner more advocates and broader understanding. We need to get rid of the “us” versus “them” mentality.

What keeps you up at night when you think about our aging society?

One of the biggest challenges we face across the lifespan is social isolation. This is particularly challenging for older adults who are less mobile and connected. As noted above, we have data on the incredible effects of having purpose and connection with others, and know the hard realities for those who live without. This is hugely problematic. This reality poses a significant opportunity—and critical need—for us to be creative and innovative with technology and other approaches to create opportunities for social connection.

What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Social Work, where a professor shared the most beautiful thought about working with older adults. She described older adults’ lives as glass mosaics. She said it’s our job to “hold them up and shine light at different angles to truly see all the colors, details and full beauty of their lives.”

We must dig deeper and go beyond what is seen at face value. When we make it a priority to shine the light, we learn more about a person’s past, experiences, challenges, accomplishments and desires—and we see the full beauty of these long, dynamic lives.


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