We now know that engaging olders to support youngers, to connect with them in meaningful ways, is one of the routes to well-being in later life. An extensive body of research on purpose, generativity, relationship, and face-to-face contact makes it plain: engagement with others that flows down the generational chain will make you healthier, happier, and likely longer-lived. It’s the real fountain of youth.
Likewise, when we think of what young people need, the answer looks a lot like the assets of the older generation, today and into the future. If we stood in front of a whiteboard and tried to design the perfect human resource for kids, it would be a group that’s vast and growing, with time on its hands, inclined toward connection, in possession of abundant skills in areas like emotional regulation, and driven not only to relationship but by generativity. In other words, older people. We don’t have to invent that source because it already exists. Mostly we need to stop thwarting its engagement.
Bringing the generations together in ways that involve real, meaningful relationships can chip away at so many problems – from job training to housing, afterschool care to health care, and literacy to loneliness, which some have described as the most significant public health issue of our time. But forging meaningful bonds that connect the generations is not only a means to solving problems; it’s an enormously important end.
In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik writes that parenting is deeply linked to the human condition, one of a whole set of activities we undertake because they matter in and of themselves. Caregiving for frail elders is another example. Sure, we want to provide this care and support in ways that are cost effective and well managed. But at its root, caregiving is about love and human dignity.
The process of connection across generations is much the same. Experience Corps members connect to kids and help them read better than peers without these bonds, but as I learned, that’s just the half of it. In the long run, the love may well be what matters most for both the child and the older person. We know what the older adults get out of it. The younger ones learn to believe in themselves. And once they’ve had an experience of connection across the generations, they’re more likely to reproduce that bond for others in their lives.
That love, that generative heart, is what I witnessed on the pediatrics ward of Maine Medical Center all those many years ago. [Foster Grandparents] Aggie and Louise didn’t stop desperately ill children from dying. But their presence at those deaths comforted the parents left behind and enriched the human spirit.
I remember so clearly a conversation with Aggie about caring for Susan, a thirteen-year-old girl who knew she would soon die of a congenital heart condition. “She was somebody that you just wanted to reach out to,” Aggie said. “Her mom and dad used to come with her, but she’d say, ‘I can’t talk to them, Aggie, like I can you. I know I am going to die, and I can’t talk about that to my mother and father, especially my father.’”
A few weeks later, Aggie said, “Her father called me at about a quarter to three in the morning, and he said, ‘Aggie, Susan just died. Can you come over?’ So I stayed with the family until they removed her body from the hospital, seven or eight hours later. Then I went to Oakfield for the funeral…and later the parents sent me her obituary sealed in plastic, and it said, ‘Susan is survived by her parents, and by a Foster Grandparent, Aggie Bennett.’ That I wouldn’t part with for anything.”
This is a story about how we, as human beings, care for one another, a story about the alchemy of connection across the generations. And a reminder that love is truly the legacy we leave behind.
This essay is adapted from How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations by Marc Freedman.