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The Importance of Intergenerational Programs

“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation.”
Margaret Mead


If you think about the people you know from different generations, you are likely thinking about your family; your parents and grandparents, your children and grandchildren, your aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces. The story of intergenerational relationships, therefore, is the story of families. As society has changed and evolved, so too have family ties changed over time. Today, in addition to the traditional familial unit, families exist in many different forms such as single parent, grandparent-grandchild, childless, same-sex couples, and “step” and “blended” families. Families differ also in their housing and living patterns. These changes call for new definitions, new relationships, and a new way to make these essential connections.

Consider elders in nursing homes and assisted living communities. People who move into a nursing home experience change in social status, loss of autonomy, the feeling of having no place to call home, change in social contacts, and the reduction of activities – all of which endanger their identity. Nursing home residents want to feel part of society and remain in contact with family members and friends, maintaining social contacts. Contact between many nursing home residents and their families becomes rare after they move for many reasons: lack of interest, a general avoidance of topics of disease, and geographic separation. In fact, 60% of nursing home residents receive NO personal visits. Although nursing home staff strive to provide the support and relationships that elders need, it is a challenge that is frequently beyond their ability, as many are overwhelmed with administrative tasks and providing basic medical care.

Bessie’s Hope was founded in 1994 by Sharron Brandrup, Linda Holloway, and Marge Utne to address this need, and they quickly discovered the power of intergenerational programing. Bessie’s Hope intergenerational programs afford elders an opportunity to participate in meaningful activities, form new relationships and feel connected with the community. In doing so, Bessie’s Hope remains unique as the only organization in the US that proactively brings people of all ages and backgrounds together in this life-transforming way, in work that does have the power to strengthen the very fabric of our society with threads of empathy, compassion and respect.

Today, almost 25 years later, Bessie’s Hope volunteers visit thousands of nursing home and assisted living residents each year. [Learn more about the Intergenerational Programs at Bessie’s Hope] The success of our programs is based on the following:

  • Education and Training – Youth and adult volunteers receive education regarding aging, dementia and nursing home life. Their training includes communication tools, which prepare youth, group leaders, families, adult groups and individual volunteers to have meaningful interaction with elders of all levels of cognitive functioning, including advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Activity Planning – Bessie’s Hope staff guide activity planning to ensure that all activities are age and capability appropriate. Activities are also integrated into the school’s academic curriculum and into the youth group’s objectives.
  • Relationship Building – Because of the structure and frequency of the visits, Bessie’s Hope programs cultivate mutually rewarding relationships between the elders and volunteers of all ages.

We see the successes of these programs every day in the elders that we serve. Loneliness, boredom, and depression are decreased, while self-esteem and social interaction are increased. A report on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia prepared by the Department of Veterans Affairs sites that intergenerational activities have been linked to increased social behavior. In 2017, 92% of elders of varying cognitive levels reported that Bessie’s Hope volunteers added joy to their lives and helped them feel wanted and important.

“For me, bringing the young and old together like this, is not just a pleasure, it’s a necessity.”
A 96 year-old participant

Also, Bessie’s Hope programs have a positive effect on the residents’ physical health. Research proves that providing or receiving kindness increases serotonin (an important “feel-good” hormone that creates a feeling of well-being) levels. When serotonin levels increase, the immune system is strengthened. Participation in pleasurable activities or activities that induce pleasurable memories increase immune system efficiency by releasing endorphins which increase the proliferation of T Cells (the main soldiers of the immune system).

The elders aren’t the only ones who benefit from intergenerational programs created by Bessie’s Hope. Research shows that children need four to six involved, caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. In general, children develop higher self-esteem, better emotional and social skills (including an ability to withstand peer pressure), and can even have better grades in school. The involvement of a reliable, caring adult helps children develop life skills, and builds self-esteem and confidence. One study showed that when a child is mentored by an adult, they are: 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs; 27% less likely to begin using alcohol; and 52% less likely to skip school.

“I love Bessie’s Hope, because the elders tell me to stay in school, and they really care about what I’m doing with my life. They’re like my inspiration.”
A 16-yr old participant from an “at-risk youth program”

Children feel special in intergenerational relationships. Children know that being with their Bessie’s Hope “grandpartners” is special. They experience an unconditional type of love that’s not easily found elsewhere. Through sharing in an older adult’s interests, skills, and hobbies, children are introduced to new activities and ideas. Through their life experience, older adults can often bring with them a tremendous amount of patience. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes children pick up from elders tend to stay with them through life more than those picked up from other sources.

Young people become more comfortable with aging when they have many models for adulthood, and older adulthood. This not only helps combat ageist stereotypes [learn more about ageism], but allows children to see a trajectory for the whole of their lives and make connections between what they do and learn now to how they will succeed in the future. Research shows that “planful competence” – the ability to understand the life course and work toward goals – is key to student success in school and in life.

Children aren’t the only learners in our society. Young and old can fulfill the role of student and teacher for each other. Children like to feel needed, and they can share with the elders information about technology, new practices in education, and information on popular culture. Children can also help older people, particularly those facing health challenges or other losses, see the world anew again, through a child’s eyes. Elders have an opportunity to leave a powerful legacy, to make a difference. They can send a message into the future through a young friend. Relationships across generations can fulfill our desire for immortality.

As these relationships grow, the impact can be seen rippling throughout the community with the result being a better quality of life for everyone. Imagine the strength of a community in which all generations support each other. Communities become more than neighbors, but family. And when everyone around us is part of our family, we no longer have to fear that our evolving society will leave anyone behind.

“Show me any social problem and I’ll show you an intergenerational solution,”
Shannon Jarrott, PhD, a professor of social work at Ohio State University.

Therefore, intergenerational programs are not a luxury; they’re a necessity. When we weave all ages into the fabric of our lives, we’re left with a much stronger society.
Bessie’s Hope will continue to stand at the forefront of the Intergenerational Programing movement. Learn more about us on our website and watch for more in our Intergenerational Month series each Wednesday in September.