Friendships between the young and old are a win/win solution to both a growing loneliness epidemic and greater numbers of time-poor working parents. The elderly often have under-utilised time which they are happy to give, and parents and young people are often in need of their support and love.
“For all the hand-wringing about the graying of America, the needs and assets of the generations fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”
His organisation, Encore.org, has pioneered innovative programs and sparked a growing movement in the United States to tap into the talent and experience of older generations to solve complex social problems. Both groups would be better off if they connected more.
Elderly people who are engaged with young people are much happier, according to one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who led the study for decades, found that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation were three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so.
And young people are better-adjusted if they have the help of wise mentors. For instance, a renowned longitudinal study followed the development of nearly 700 children from Kauai, Hawaii, from age one to age 40. After four decades, the results showed that the children who thrived, even despite great adversity, were those who had the support of one caregiver — often a grandparent or an older member of the community.
Despite an aging population, there is less intergenerational connection in the West than ever before. A UK parliamentary inquiry (pdf) found that segregation between retirees and young adults roughly doubled between 2001 and 2018. That is partially because the family unit has become increasingly separated. Elderly people are more likely to live in retirement communities, a concept which hasn’t actually been around all that long. Children are now at school for a much greater part of their lives than ever before. The separation seems also to have resulted in a change in mentality, and old age is no longer associated so much with leadership, experience and wisdom.
As more and more of us live to see our 100th birthday, it is worthwhile planning how we can bring more purpose and meaning to our later years, while also benefitting the young.
Things are slowly changing as people realise the difference that can be made when intergenerational connection is a focus. From play sessions for toddlers within retirement villages, companies which match tech-savvy young adults with seniors in need of help, to university students who live with elderly people, there are so many creative ways we can bring people together in community, and enrich the lives of both young and old.
Shannon Roberts is co-editor of Demography Is Destiny.