Bridging the Gap

Multigenerational Hands

When my twins were around a month old, and I was incredibly sleep-deprived, I remember sobbing to my mother that I must be a horrible mom because everything felt so hard. I had modern conveniences to care for my newborns, unlike my great-grandmother of twins in the early 1900s. How did she manage when I couldn’t? My mother replied simply, “she had live-in help with her mother.” (My mom ended up staying another day with me.)

The United States began the 20th century as one of the most age-integrated societies in the world. Grandparents, children, and grandchildren were all living under the same roof. We had one-room schoolhouses with multiple ages learning together. Today, we are one of the most age-segregated with most younger people in school, middle-aged people at work, and older people in age-restricted communities such as assisted living and nursing homes. This restructuring has left us ill-prepared to manage the current demographic change with older adults projected to outnumber children for the first time in history. By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than age 65. This will expand the size of the older population so that 1 in every 5 residents will be retirement age.

Our age-segregated society also has yielded a range of social problems, including wasted human resources, rampant ageism, and an epidemic of loneliness. Younger and older people are the most isolated groups in society—a reality made all the more evident by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Shepherd’s Centers Network can be among the innovators to help model greater cross-generational engagement and interdependence. Intergenerational programs can take many forms, but all are about bringing people of different generations together for mutually beneficial activities to promote greater understanding and respect between generations. There is no one size fits all. 

For those who ask how co-generational programs and services advance our mission, just consider the research documenting the benefits, such as improved mental, physical, and cognitive health unique to each life stage; a greater sense of belonging and connection with others of different ages; and more acceptance of people who are different from themselves. Moreover, age diversity positively contributes to organizational performance. Happy, healthy aging and respect for others is fundamental to who we are.

Roughly 30% of Shepherd’s Centers say they offer intergenerational programs, and 70% say they have no age restrictions on volunteering. When talking about the intergenerational activities offered by Shepherd’s Centers, I stress that the network offers all types: young helping old, old helping young, and young and old serving side by side. These efforts are in keeping with our mission of by, with, and for older adults. And it is empowerment. 

Our society often defines and limits people by age, but when you believe anything is possible, there is nothing that can stop us…not even one’s age.

 Sarah Cheney