Intergenerational Social Connectedness and Health
By: Dr. Roger Landry
Author of Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging
When I became a grandfather more than a decade ago, I knew that it would be a wonderful experience. I got to see my daughter as a mother bringing a new child into the world that I could enjoy but not have to raise myself. What I didn’t expect was the profound mystical experience I felt at this miraculous merry-go-round that is the circle of life. It was life being lived and realized at its highest potential. For me, becoming a grandfather was one of the greatest joys of my life.
Even more surprises came later as my grandson began to notice me, then recognize who I was, then communicate, then play, and then befriend me … this was a validation that made the rewards of career and accomplishment pale in comparison; A validation of my very existence; of my role in this magnificent journey of life.
Children Reduce Our Stress (No, Really!)
Children are the bearers and promoters of our more noble human qualities, and on a more practical level, children reduce our stress. Admittedly, many parents would not agree, but hear me out…
When we can look beyond the complex parent-child relationship, with it’s focus on safety, discipline, and providing for needs, we can allow the relationship to be what it is, if only for short periods of time: two humans, in different places on a circle, yet connected, and both necessary to keep the circle of life as a circle.
We can then allow for a mix of unbridled optimism and experiential skepticism; of boundless energy and growing fatigue; of curiosity and experience; of innocence and wisdom. The result of this recipe is not always predictable, but it is healthy, satisfying and stress reducing, because when we are with children and not burdened of the duties and responsibilities of parenting, we are less likely to be anywhere else – not worrying about the world, or our aches and pains, or our finances, or our life expectancy. We are more likely to be in the moment with them and free from our self-induced stressors.
There is a widespread tendency to believe that modern children don’t want to be with older adults. This is the logical conclusion of a smoldering ageism in our society. However, everything in our DNA tells us otherwise. The relationship between the old and young is primal. It is the result of eons of tribal and village connection, which is encoded into our very DNA. Knowing this requires us to dust off some of the trappings of our modern era to reveal the masterpiece that is our intergenerational connectedness to our grandchildren.
Intergenerational Social Connectedness and Health
Today, with the disappearance of the village society (even the disappearance of the neighborhood of my own youth), there is a diminished responsibility for others’ children. Of course, most people treat other children kindly but harbor a reluctance to offer more than a smile and greeting. Consequently, we have scores of older adults who have no access to children. Which means that scores of older adults disconnected from the circle of life and enriching, health promoting relationship with the young.
For eons, we gathered together in small generationally diverse groups in order to survive in harsh environments. The flourishing of children not only ensured the survival of us as a race, or as a village, but it also provided the workers, soldiers, craftsman, mothers, cooks, scholars and all sorts of human resources needed. Children were not only recipients of parental and village nurturing and instruction, but also had crucial roles in the operation of the family and the society. Children were an integral part of the human efforts to survive and the operation of the tribe. Therefore, a life devoid of children is an anomaly.
But are children necessary to age successfully?
The Eden Alternative: Dr. William Thomas, founder of The Eden Alternative, firmly believes older adults thrive when in close and continuous contact with plants, animals and children to build resilience and avoid depression. In retirement communities where the Eden Alternative has been adopted, they report the reduction in medication use and lower mortality rates.
Humana and KaBoom: Health insurer Humana sees the value of association with children. Humana works with KaBoom, a non-profit that aims to build a playground within walking distance of every child’s home. Humana has sponsored multigenerational playgrounds with equipment suitable for all ages. These playgrounds combine the benefits of physical activity and mingling with children in order to maximize the benefits of exercise and to help motivate older adults to move. These spaces will soon be in ten major cities.
Project Shine: The value of intergenerational exchange is becoming mainstream in the healthcare community. The Intergenerational Center of Temple University’s College of Health Professions and Social Work in Philadelphia recently won the Eisner Foundation’s first “Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence” for their Project Shine. The goal of Project Shine, according to founder and executive director, Nancy Henkin, is to “bring together young and old so everyone can feel like they’re contributing to society from birth until death.” Project Shine brings together local immigrants, struggling with integrating into the community, with students through educational programs, volunteerism and mentoring. This program has been a great success and has expanded to 31 colleges and 200 ethnic community organizations.
How Children Benefit From Older Adults
And what about the children? Do they benefit from the association with older adults? Big Brothers Big Sisters of America report that children in their programs, after only eighteen months were:
• 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs
• 27% less likely to begin using alcohol
• 52% less likely to skip school
• 37% less likely to skip a class
• 33% less likely to hit someone
Clearly this young people-older people association can be characterized as “win-win.”
With summer in full swing, my favorite activities to do with my grandkids are playing backyard baseball (at Landry Field), beachcombing, taking a trip to the ice cream store, swimming and even running through the sprinkler (The lawn gets watered, and we stay cool!). But, what can you do if you don’t have grandchildren or want to have a greater association with children? Here are five ideas to get you started …
5 Ways to Have Children in Your Life (Even if You Don’t Have Grandchildren):
1) Contact the local Big Brothers Big Sisters and ask about the requirements to enter their program.
2) Visit the local elementary school and see if it’s possible to become a mentor, storyteller or aide. Many school’s history classes will welcome an eyewitness account of twentieth-century events you have lived through.
3) Ask the local library if they have a need for a children’s storyteller or reader.
4) Visit the local hospital’s children’s ward to see if they have a need for volunteers. Many welcome baby rockers.
5) Teach a special skill that could benefit children. Perhaps you’re good at woodworking, knitting, playing a musical instrument or are fluent in a foreign language. Local organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, community centers, the YMCA and TWCA, church groups, summer camps and other community-based organizations are hungry for volunteers and instructors.