Too many residents of our nation’s senior living homes are enduring unnecessarily unhealthy lives that lead to premature deaths. These facilities are too often warehouses for the old and the waiting-to-die. And the biggest reasons for this are that our senior centers are too clean. And they’re too quiet.
These homes, of course, are especially clean and quiet because most of them are kid-free zones designed to prohibit interactions with young people. They’re antiseptic and hushed shrines to age-segregation and their insistence on denying natural intergenerational interactions is not only a blow to the social fabric and unification of our society, but a misguided business decision.
These seniors-only, age-segregated institutions are an anachronistic response to a market demand that no longer exists. In a 2018 Eisner Foundation/Generations United study, 85 percent of older adults said they’d prefer to live in a care setting where there are opportunities to interact with people of different age groups. For most, the allure of Sun City is dead. They don’t want isolation, they want interaction. More specifically, older folks want purpose. And purpose comes from helping and engaging with young people who desperately need mentors, role models, tutors, and friends.
Senior homes should work to incorporate true intergenerational programming into their facilities. As a result, those centers would invariably get a little louder, and a little messier. And they would be so much better, not only for those who live there, but society as a whole.
The evidence is clear that the single best way to increase health outcomes for those who live in our senior centers is to give those residents purpose. And the best way to give older people purpose is to give them opportunities to help younger people.
The Eisner/GU study found that older adults in intergenerational programs experience improved health and well-being, and feel less isolated and less lonely. Those with dementia experience additional positive effects, including reduced agitation and increased levels of engagement during interactions with children than they did when confined to interactions with their similarly-aged peers. A full 97 percent of those who engaged in intergenerational activities in a shared site setting reported that they benefitted from the program and reported feeling happy, interested, loved, younger, and needed. When older people are given opportunities to interact in a substantive way with younger people, they feel more purposeful, and subsequently, happier and healthier.
And it doesn’t have to just be intergenerational programming with the “easy” kids, the ones that sit placidly at the foot of an elder, waiting patiently to hear a tale of the olden days. It can be the “tough” kids, the ones that need the most help, because it turns out that our oldest citizens are actually our best mentors and tutors. They’re experienced, educated, patient, and there not to pad a resume, but to truly connect with a young person who desperately needs a caring adult in their life.
At Bridge Meadows in Portland, OR, “elders,” in return for subsidized housing, help new foster parents raise their children. Through Friendship Foundation in Southern California, residents at a senior housing complex host a game night each week with developmentally disabled young people, giving them advice, companionship, and a friend. And when the Los Angeles LGBT Center opens its new campus next year, seniors living in the on-site affordable housing will regularly interact with the youth in transitional housing right next door. Each of these non-profit groups seek to serve the most vulnerable and most challenged members of our society, and the weapon they choose to help them in their battle are seniors. Because each of these groups know that by providing an opportunity for purpose for the older adults, they will get unbelievable volunteers best prepared to bring about transformative results for the vulnerable children they serve.
Is this not a win-win? The kids in our society who most need help are provided high-quality assistance. And for those in the longevity sector, incorporating intergenerational programs into their facilities allows older people to live longer, more productive, even happier lives. They stay healthier longer.
From the Eisner/GU study, we know that older people want these kinds of programs: 86 percent of loved ones stated that they’d want their family member in an intergenerational setting.
So, we know that older people want to interact with younger people, and that their health improves when they do so. And we know that young people not only crave these relationships but thrive when presented with them. But from the Eisner/GU study, we learn that only 26 percent of Americans are aware of places in their community that care for children and older adults together.
Some of this disconnect is a result of education. We need to spread the word on where these programs are so consumers can find them.
But the biggest challenge is that not enough intergenerational shared site options exist for our rapidly-growing elderly population. We simply need more of them.
It is time for consumers to demand intergenerational programs in their senior homes. It is time for our politicians to streamline the regulations to make co-housing these populations less burdensome. It is time for funders to pay for these types of proven programs. And it is well past time for organizations that serve seniors or kids to ask why they don’t serve both.
And, yes, that that means we need kids visiting our senior homes. And kids are messy. And loud. And they make everything better.