by Linda Sechrist
In intergenerational programs throughout the U.S. and in Europe, thousands of “youngers” and “elders” are building bridges that were forged naturally before family members spread out and many retirees departed for warmer climes.
Based on a U.S. adult population of 41 million people 65 years and older and 74 million youths up to the age of 17, the current generation gap is already unprecedented. By 2030, those numbers will increase to 72 million and 80 million, respectively, according to the international nonprofit Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Along with Generation Waking Up, Wiser Together and others, it’s working to foster better social cohesion in ways that help individuals of all ages lead richer and more rewarding lives.
Providing nurturing opportunities for individuals to look at life through the eyes of others with dissimilar experiences that have led them to different assumptions and perspectives on life can be helpful. Broadening everyone’s relationship scope to include “May-December” friendships creates the potential for the kind of life-changing possibilities experienced by a troubled young man named Harold when he struck up a surprising friendship with a life-loving woman as old as his grandmother in the film Harold and Maude.
In real life, “I had the blessing of growing up in an intergenerational family,” says Yvette McGlasson, director of port revenue for the PPI Group, in Pompano, Florida. The 17-year veteran of the cruise industry is a former Holland America cruise director whose career at sea launched her into work as a director of events for age-restricted (55-plus) gated communities such as Del Webb Lake Providence, near Nashville.
“As a child, I was told I had to listen to my elders as a sign of respect. The many memorable times spent with my grandparents, my mother’s friends and a great aunt who lived to 101, soon turned my resignation into an active desire to spend time with my elders. Their experiences and wisdom were fascinating and I understood that their shared life lessons could prove invaluable to me,” says McGlasson.
The experience inspired her to develop a multigenerational “grandparents at-large” partnership with an elementary school across the street from the Del Webb community. The school principal recognized that residents would be valuable mentors, able to fill an emotional void for the latchkey kids of working parents, plus foster a deeper appreciation for their elders among the children.
“In this paradigm of mentorship, young people are mentoring their elders and elders are mentoring young people and together, we’re co-creating something new,” says Joshua Gorman, the founder of Generation Waking Up, out of Oakland, California.
Since launching their first multigenerational initiative at the Shambhala Institute in 2004, partnering across age groups has been at the forefront of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs’ work as co-founders and hosts of the World Café global learning community. “We cultivate collaboration through conversations that matter in order to leverage the unique gifts of every generation in addressing humanity’s most critical issues,” says Brown.
Such conversations—in which elders and young people give up the cultural and societal norms and habits that shape so much of their thinking—offer both groups opportunities to discern the possibilities inherent in mutual insight, innovation and action.
When a young Clarissa Tufts, program coordinator and family liaison for the SelfDesign Learning Community, in British Columbia, was working on her master’s degree from the SelfDesign Graduate Institute, she sought out mentor Anne Adams, a faculty member in her 70s who worked with Tufts for 18 months. “Anne’s earliest statements, ‘I’m here to support you in being the best you can be’ and ‘I get energized by talking with young people and hearing their ideas,’ felt good and let me know that we were both benefitting from our relationship and building something together,” says Tufts.
Stimulating cooperation and collaboration among generations evokes the vibrancy, energy and productivity that occur when people cross-pollinate ideas and perspectives. It can also provide a sense of purpose, improve confidence and social skills, create solutions to societal challenges, help resolve emotional and behavioral problems and lift depression, all enhancing productive engagement in life.
Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Connect at ItsAllAboutWe.com.
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