Today, even though people are living longer and healthier lives, more than 43% of older adults live alone, and only one in eight lives with extended family. Living in such social isolation is known to lead to loneliness and depression, as well as mental and physical decline.
To offset these potential sad realities, we, as the children, often look to transition our senior loved ones to assisted living facilities, where they will receive good care and be in the company of their peers. However, as time has shown, this does not necessarily guarantee a full and happy solution. Our loved ones may remain self-sufficient and independent in many regards, but often, they still suffer from isolation. So what else can we as busy people do to ensure our loved ones get both the care and emotional solace they need?
One answer is to find programs that encourage contact between generations, which is, after all, a core factor in meaningful family life.
Children today might be more likely to have healthy, active grandparents, but ironically, they are also less likely to know their grandparents well or to see them often. Furthermore, care for the young and care for the old is so separated in society today that the two generations rarely have the chance to interact. And this is very sad, as findings consistently show that that our “book-end generations” greatly benefit when they have the opportunity to be paired together.
In addition to being a great cure for loneliness, bringing youth and older people together provides a wealth of benefits for both generations. It provides older adults with an increased sense of fulfillment, reduced feelings of depression and isolation, and gives them a sense of joy and purpose which invigorates and energizes them. They frequently gain a renewed sense of self-worth by having opportunities to share their knowledge and to serve as role models.
Children, in turn, have to the opportunity to learn from their elders and to receive and give unconditional love and attention. They also learn to understand and accept aging, which alleviates fears they may have of the elderly from lack of familiarity. It also can fill a void for those who do not have or get to see their own grandparents very often. And both groups have opportunities to learn new skills and engage in recreational and educational activities that build into loving and meaningful relationships over time.
When you are considering programs that will provide valuable daily life for your elderly loved ones, we suggest you find one that offers intergenerational opportunities. We are proud that the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is one such place.
Unlike so many senior centers that are isolated from the rest of the world, seniors at the JCC meet in a busy, thriving environment that allows them to be completely engaged with the world and with life. They are surrounded by all generations – from nursery school classes and day camps to a whole world of adult programing, where they can attend lectures, exercise, and take part in special clubs like gardening, cooking, a book club, and photography. Having our seniors in the heart of such a vital social community has provided us with the perfect opportunity for developing programs that bring all generations together.
Recently we launched a program called “Grandfriends” where seniors become nursery school ambassadors. Seniors are paired with a specific nursery class who they visit each week so they can build on their relationships throughout the school year. During their visits, they read books, tell stories, celebrate Shabbat, sing holiday songs, and share in other activities that create meaningful bonds. The groups have grown so close that the children now call their senior companions the ‘grandma and grandpas’ of the JCC and call out to them when they pass each other in the hallways. And our seniors smile from ear to ear with delight at their greetings. And, our “grandfriends” report, the experience has been life changing for them.
Intergenerational programming is not a new idea. When given the chance to share time together, older adults and children can enrich each other’s lives in ways most of us never stop to consider. Seniors who partake in intergenerational programming often say that the time they spend with children is the highpoint of their day. There is no better testimony to the benefit of bringing generations together to experience the value of friendship and love and togetherness. So our advice to you as you make plans as a caregiver for an elderly parent or loved one is to make intergenerational interactions a key priority! It will make all the difference you could ever hope for!
Written by Marlene Ceragno, certified gerontologist and dementia care practitioner and the senior program and caregiver services coordinator at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.