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Connecting Elders and Teens: The Value of Inter-generational Programming

Written by Bethany Todd, in Collaboration with Laura Barr

Research shows that powerful things happen when we link elders and students. It’s important for different generations to engage and interact.  The purpose of inter-generational planning is to serve the community, build character and promote emotional health for both generations involved. Maurice Elias, Professor of Psychology and Director at Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, stated that Connecting young people to senior citizens “is a win-win for both the students and adults involved, creating situations rich with emotions, perspective taking, and shared activity.”

The Benefits of Connecting Elders and Teens

Schools often provide opportunities for older students to mentor younger students, but teens also need opportunities to be the mentee. When teens build a meaningful connection with an elder it helps strengthen their social/emotional capacity and further connects them with the community. In these programs, seniors receive some much needed company and in return, youth gain energy, purpose, wisdom, perspective, and service.

Bayshore Home Care
 provides a list of additional benefits from these relationships:

  1. Provide an opportunity for both to learn new skills
  2. Give the child and the older adult a sense of purpose
  3. Help to alleviate fears children may have of the elderly
  4. Help children to understand and later accept their own aging
  5. Invigorate and energize older adults
  6. Help reduce the likelihood of depression in the elderly
  7. Reduce the isolation of older adults
  8. Fill a void for children who do not have grandparents available to them
  9. Help keep family stories and history alive
  10. Aide in cognitive  stimulation as well as broaden social circles should a youth introduce technology into the life a senior

Using activities to structure student visits is important because they help teens to initiate conversation and comfortably engage. Bayshore Home Care also shared a fabulous list of activities that strengthen inter-generational relationships.

Activities include:

  • Storytelling. Swapping stories is a great activity and can help build a connection.
  • Learning skills. Many older adults have skills or talents that would be interesting for children. Perhaps your child could learn to weave, crochet, fish, bake, or even take care of animals.
  • Reading to each other.
  • Planning/preparing a meal (if applicable).
  • Scrapbooking.  Establishing phone pals. This activity can connect older community members with children who are alone after school.
  • Talking about ethnic heritage. Share ethnic customs, discuss the meaning of a name in native language, or relate special stories passed down about culture.
  • Planting seeds or gardening. This illustrates the stages of the life cycle. A container garden can be created if bending or space are issues.
  • Weather watching.
  • Telling jokes.
  • Discussing hobbies and sharing examples.
  • Having the child teach the senior a new technology

Accountability and Reflection

New York City Public Schools suggests that programs continually monitor and assess the visits by providing surveys, questionnaires, and observations. They also require that each student complete a daily exit tool as a way to reflect on the days activities. These types of opportunities for reflection help students to stop and think about what was learned or done during the visit. Without doing so, many students may forget. I’m reminded of the book, The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them  written by The Freedom Writers, a group of high school students from Long Beach, California. The, then controversial teacher, gave the students very meaningful learning experiences, then asked them to write. The journal entries/diaries are so powerful. Teenagers lives were changed from their connections to literature and in some cases, elders, and their writing about it. What if journals of the students times at the senior center were published and left as a gift?

Families Can Get Involved Too

If your teen doesn’t have access to inter-generational programs such as this, consider serving at a senior community center as a family. Ask a senior care center what the needs of the elder community are, and consider how the whole family can get involved to help.

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