What Are Intergenerational Programs For Aging Adults?

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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Intergenerational programs have existed since the early 1970s, with the idea of bringing together the two most vulnerable populations, the very young and old. Demographic and cultural changes contributed to the notion that these populations could benefit one another, as children need mentors and older adults need purpose and interaction. 

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Over the years, there has been an increase in families with two working parents, making it that much harder to find time to spend with children. Families have also increasingly moved away from grandparents making that connection harder to maintain. So what do these programs look like now? And what kinds of things do they provide for both the young and the old?

What Are Intergenerational Programs?

Intergenerational programs bring younger and older people together in creative and inspiring ways. These programs range from seniors mentoring younger adults to aging adults interacting with older college students.

Working or volunteering with older adults can bring an unexpected level of satisfaction and enjoyment by giving back. And according to the Population Reference Bureau, “the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060.” As a result, there are now many opportunities for the younger generation to learn from their elders and develop new connections.

Some intergenerational programs are small and local, and others are larger national organizations. During the pandemic, many of these programs have had to adapt accordingly and some have gone online. There are too many programs to discuss in this article, but we will highlight a few to give you an idea of the creative ways in which organizations are bringing the generations together. 

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Intergenerational Program Models

Although each program may vary in its design and intent, there are six basic models of intergenerational programs. You are most likely to find one of the six in your region or local neighborhood.

  • Groups of school-aged children visit older adults in congregate senior housing such as nursing homes and assisted living communities. Children and older adults engage in activities together during their visits.
  • Older youth from high school or college meet with aging adults in their homes or senior housing to assist with letter writing, leisure activities, tech support, shopping, and other needed tasks.
  • Youth and older adults collaborate on community projects together. Examples include fundraising, community gardening, aging services, and senior center projects.
  • Specific programs pair children with older adults in schools to help with reading and other educational skills.
  • Co-housing models of living are often intergenerational with older people living communally with families. Each family has its own living space, but meals and activities are shared. Some co-housing communities are for seniors only, but many are intergenerational. 
  • University living for seniors is becoming more popular, but it is expensive. College campuses are developing retirement communities. As part of the programming, older adults can audit college classes and participate in other student activities. Some campuses invite students to live in the retirement spaces free of charge in exchange for mentoring, tech support, and security. Universities benefit by developing unused space while getting additional income. Older adults benefit by being in a vibrant and exciting learning environment. 

Where Do You Usually Find Intergenerational Programs?

Before beginning your search for an intergenerational program, determine what you need and want. You may prefer an experience where you are a mentor or teacher for a young person.

Or, you might need a college-age student to assist you with key challenges in your life related to loneliness, tech support, food delivery, and other tasks. Perhaps you are the kind of person that enjoys collaborating on projects and tasks with other people. 

The best place to start in finding a program in your area is to do an online search. It is possible to find more than one program in your locale so that you can choose the best fit for you. If there is a university or college in your area, check to see if they have programs. Call your local Aging and Adult Services, as they will have a list of programs.

What Are the Benefits for Intergenerational Programs or Interaction?

The benefits for younger and older people are mutual. Ageist attitudes and a focus in the media on youth affect everyone’s views on aging.

Teaching a younger generation to respect and appreciate older adults benefits everyone. Identified behaviors that occur in intergenerational interactions are helping, showing affection, flexibility, reinforcing, building cooperation, and giving. 

Benefits for younger people

When younger adults or children collaborate or receive mentorship from older adults, they improve their performance at school, thanks to the attention and additional teaching provided by these aging adults. Research into these programs has shown marked boosting of school performance. 

Many young folks who participate end up attending school more consistently and improve their communication skills, leading to an increased likelihood of continuing education. It also helps that they feel cared for and appreciated, which helps with motivation and self-esteem.

Some children may come from troubled households or backgrounds and need responsible and compassionate adult care. In the same vein, these young adults that are mentored by seniors are less likely to skip school or use illegal drugs. For much younger students, they gain the ability to improve skills such as staying on task, empathy, and confidence.

A greater appreciation of aging and reduced stereotyping also happens as they are able to get past surface level communication. In particular, for college and high school students, they are able to understand the number of issues related to aging, while also gaining work experience and the joy of giving back to the community. An opportunity to collaborate on projects together also helps those under 25 increase their work-related skills. 

Benefits for older adults

Of course, young adults and kids are not the only ones benefiting from these interactions. Social isolation and loneliness are significant problems for older adults, which can cause depression and anxiety. Social interaction with younger people can counter the effects of isolation.

A sense of purpose and feeling useful is vital to self-esteem and well-being. When an older adult can assist a younger person, they fulfill that need. This extends to working on projects and tasks together and mentoring opportunities.

Part of successful aging is being proactive and engaged with life. When aging adults interact consistently with other people, it improves cognitive ability. Think of it as “if you don’t use it, you lose it!” So it makes sense that social interaction can have a significant impact on improving memory for older adults.

For volunteer programs that assist older adults with daily living needs, the support can mean the difference between aging in place and moving to assisted living. For many older adults who can’t afford help in the home, volunteers can add a layer of support. 

In the long run, the more younger people that work with older adults, the more likely they are to enter a field related to geriatrics, which is greatly needed. Fields such as caregiving, nursing, and allied health areas are growing geriatric professions. 

What Are Some Examples of Intergenerational Programs for Aging Adults?

There are hundreds of programs across the country that bring younger and older people together. These are a few that demonstrate the variety and ingenuity of these amazing programs.

Experience Corps

Experience Corps is a program under the AARP Foundation umbrella and is a volunteer-based mentoring program that pairs older volunteers with school-aged children.

Specifically, older adults help children who have reading difficulties. The program results have shown that children improved their sense of responsibility, decision making, and relationship skills.

The Council of Independent Colleges

The Council of Independent Colleges serves older adults who live in college and university communities. The program specifically targets adults who have needs related to hunger, income inequality, and social isolation.

For students, this program offers the opportunity to develop new skills and earn a stipend for their work on older adults’ behalf.

Generations United

The mission of Generations United is to “improve the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs for the enduring benefit of all.”

Generations United also recognizes intergenerational programs throughout the country. The diversity of and links to these programs can be viewed on their website. Generations United seeks to affect and influence public policy for younger and older adults.

Smart Reading

There are hundreds of programs across the country that pair older adults with younger people. Smart Reading is one program that focuses on improving the reading skills of children.

Adults meet with children one-on-one during the school year to help them build self-confidence.

Hebrew Senior Life

Based in Boston and affiliated with Harvard medical school, Hebrew Senior Life offers assisted living, independent, and memory care. Hebrew Senior Life, as part of its broad-based wellness programming, includes intergenerational opportunities.

Elementary and middle school children visit residents. Pre-school children visit seniors in the rehabilitation center to join in arts, music, and reading. High school students shop for and visit residents.

Americorps Foster Grandparent Program

The Foster Grandparent Program, a program of Americorps Seniors, pairs older adults who volunteer through organizations that serve younger people in need.

These young people include kids who need one-on-one tutoring for reading and writing. Foster grandparents also work with troubled teenagers and young mothers as well as abused or neglected children.

Intergenerational Programs Provide Opportunities for All 

Intergenerational programs for older adults come in all shapes and sizes. If you have an interest in working with younger people and contributing to your community, you can certainly find a fit for your lifestyle and needs.

If you’re a younger person also looking to contribute to your community, you can find an intergenerational program where you see the benefits of helping out first-hand.


Sources

  1. “Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States.” Population Reference Bureau. www.prb.org/aging-unitedstates-fact-sheet/
  2. Hartocollis, Anemona. “At Colleges, What’s Old is New: Retirees Living on Campus.” New York Times. 10 September 2019. www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/us/college-university-retirement-communities.html 

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