LeadingAge Magazine · September/October 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 05

All Ages Making a Difference: the Benefits of Intergenerational Partnerships

September 14, 2016 | by John Mitchell

Intergenerational mixing improves the lives of people of all ages. See how some providers are facilitating those benefits.

There's a quiet revolution among the generations underway in America. Not surprisingly, aging-services providers are on the crest of the wave.

Intergenerational programs are popular among providers and believed to be a viable solution for many of the challenges of aging. But there is a growing body of evidence that older adults, children and society realize far-reaching benefits from such programs. Such advantages range from lower program and health care costs to higher student performance. And then there is the unmeasurable—the kind of joy that brings tears to the eyes.

"Show me any social problem and I'll show you an intergenerational solution," says Shannon Jarrott, PhD, a professor of social work at Ohio State University. Demographics support her assertion. According to Generations United, a not-for-profit that advocates for intergenerational living, by the year 2040, older adults, children and youth will make up over 40 percent of the population.

Jarrott specializes in intergenerational community building strategies. She was lead author on a 2008 study titled Intergenerational Shared Sites: Saving Dollars While Making Sense. The study supports the hypothesis that when intergenerational programs are operated together in the same space with shared services, costs are neutral and sometimes lower.

Many other studies, such as one published in 2015 in The American Journal of Public Health, found that chronic social isolation among the elderly contributes significantly to increased doctor and hospital costs. More than half of the respondents in the survey reported being lonely. This is a challenge of great interest to providers, who increasingly seek strategies to keep their residents happier, which results in better health.

As some LeadingAge members have discovered, joining elderly residents together with children and teens is achieving remarkable results.

"There's a [community] in Ohio that has adult and child day care. Dementia patients help hold and feed babies in their intergenerational program," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which helped fund Jarrott's study. "One of the women with Alzheimer's who is usually unresponsive always sings out 'Oh be joyful, the babies are here!' when the babies arrive. We all need to have purpose."

Butts says that studies have shown that not only do children thrive from the attention and warmth elderly caregivers provide, but older adults score better on memory tests. They also take better care of themselves and report being more satisfied with life when they interact with younger generations.

At the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee, WI, Julie Shlensky is the Posner Chair for Intergenerational Programming. She builds relationships between local schools and other community groups and her organization’s memory care unit, skilled inpatient nursing unit, independent living and adult day care units. Her efforts helped the city receive the 2016 "Best Intergenerational Communities Award" from the MetLife Foundation and Generations United.

Kids from preschool to high school as well as college students are active in the organization’s intergenerational program. It pairs residents and students in various programs ranging from art to reading to board games.

"We don’t work to just get the 2 groups to spend time in each other's presence, but to be present in a meaningful relationship," Shlensky says. According to her, 1,422 kids came through the doors in the last fiscal year to participate in wide-ranging programs.

"It's a win-win," Shlensky says. "It's surprising how much the kids like being involved with seniors. They learn the residents’ names and look forward to being here."

One of the projects pairs residents with youths to paint and glaze pottery in an "Empty Bowls" program. The bowls are sold as a fundraiser in support of food programs. Shlensky said this is just one example of how residents feel they are part of a societal change in working with the kids, which is important in reducing any sense of social isolation.

"I love seeing the kids with our residents. Residents have told me that a home is not a home unless you have plants … and children," she adds.

For the past 3 years, residents of the Renaissance Retirement Campus, an Eliza Jennings community near Cleveland, OH, have been engaged in a unique intergenerational mentoring program. “Bulldog Buddies” was created to enrich the school experience of several first- through third-grade students at nearby Falls-Lenox Primary School in Olmsted Falls. Students participating in the program have been identified as children who would benefit from interacting with a consistent adult role model. In an effort to help meet the social and emotional needs of these children, Falls-Lenox developed Bulldog Buddies, named after the school’s mascot, to establish a relationship between the students and residents of The Renaissance. In addition to providing supportive role models who help students develop a sense of belonging in the school and community, an extended goal of the program is to help each student achieve academic success.

Each resident Big Buddy partners with a Little Buddy; some of the buddies have been together for 3 years. Big Buddies often bring activities to share that may be of interest to their Little Buddy. Buddies meet in the school cafeteria, lobby, hallway, or classroom for approximately 30 minutes weekly throughout the school year. During that time, they play games, read together, or enjoy other non-academic activities, as well as work on school assignments.

“The Bulldog Buddies program creates memories and positive experiences that influence the students far beyond the classroom,” says School Counselor Angela Butto. "The Big Buddies provide students with positive, stable role models and demonstrate kindness, trustworthiness, honesty and integrity.” She notes that students feel more positive about school, and become more resilient and better equipped to handle small problems.

Teachers and parents report improved attendance on Bulldog Buddy days because the children do not want to miss their special time with residents. The program is especially beneficial to students who struggle academically or have difficulty making friends.

Residents look forward to the camaraderie they enjoy with their fellow Big Buddies, and hope more will participate. Residents emphasize that you don’t have to be a teacher to offer support, provide a positive influence, or take advantage of “teaching moments” in the life of a child.

- Written by Linda Hart, director of public relations, Eliza Jennings.

Bridge Meadows, Portland, OR, built its award-winning community on intergenerational living. (The organization received a 2014 Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence.) Operating under the mission of "The power of place, permanence, and purpose," this intergenerational community helps older adults act as surrogate elders and grandparents for at-risk families and foster kids. Executive Director Derenda Schubert describes the 36-unit community as the intersection of child welfare, aging and affordable housing. Bridge Meadows just broke ground for a second community on Sept. 7 and 2 more communities are on the drawing board.

"The foster care issue is the glue for bringing people together in our community," explains Schubert. "At the same time we recognize the value of not living isolated, and the wisdom of elders."

Bridge Meadows relies on the power of all 3 generations supporting each other in a setting where neighbors are like family. The elders who move to the neighborhood (there's a waiting list) agree to donate at least 100 hours of community engagement time per quarter. This can range from teaching an art class to babysitting to sharing a dinner to spending time talking to one of the neighborhood’s children. She says the children begin to do better in school because they feel more secure with a permanent home.

"Intergenerational living at Bridge Meadows is an old idea that is being applied in a new way," says Schubert. "Our elders get up every day and they are connected to the community through an extended family."

She shares the story of one family of 2 siblings being raised by their grandmother. The grandmother had to work to adopt the kids out of foster care. She succeeded with the help of permanent residency at Bridge Meadows. Now with the help of her neighbors—who act as friends, mentors and surrogate extended family—one of the children is learning landscape photography. She and one of the elders in the neighborhood travel to Mt. Rainer and other wilderness areas to take their photos. The girl has recently been selected to display her photos at the Portland Art Museum.

Shubert says the program reduces the sense of social isolation adult residents feel. They also learn new skills from the kids, such as how to use computers to go on the Internet. In turn, she noted that kids learn to think about others, not just themselves.

"It's not Nirvana; there are sometimes conflicts. But then the kids learn skills to deal with conflict from the elders," she adds.

The dean of the USF College of Pharmacy, Tampa, FL, recognized a need to sharpen the communication skills of graduate students because they will soon be working with an older population. Having worked with many students from the university, St. Joseph’s John Knox Village was recommended.

In the first year we had more than 50 students come to our campus on a regular basis and meet with our previously chosen and willing residents, one on one. Our residents found this to be a meaningful way to volunteer their time and talent. In the fall semester, USF provides lectures on effective methods of communication and completes simulations and role-playing scenarios to enforce what was learned. During the spring semester, students are to use these skills in real life practice by pairing up with senior companions and meeting with them regularly.

We have received only positive feedback about the students and their new-found friendships. Many of the senior companions and students have formed strong relationships and they continue to be friends and communicate to this day. This is an intergenerational program that is now used in several senior living communities.

We celebrate the seniors and the students at our volunteer luncheon and each student gets a chance to speak in front of the group, which is another communication skill they can practice.

- Written by Lisa Lyons, executive director, St. Joseph’s John Knox Village

Robert Chellis, a longtime consultant on retirement community living linked with colleges (which generates income from unused land), attested to the fact that the same principles at Bridge Meadow can also apply to retirees who want to stay engaged with teens and young adults.

"I was doing a survey and interviewed a woman in Palo Alto, CA, who had expressed a willingness to move across country to a planned retirement community near the campus of Winthrop University in South Carolina," he said. "When I asked her 'Are you really ready to move that far?', she said yes. The prospect of being in close proximity to college students—to eat with them in the dining room and to perhaps attend classes with them—was very appealing."

At Westminster Canterbury Richmond in Virginia, the on-site Child Development Center not only is an important benefit to its employees, easing child care needs, but also offers the opportunity to keep elders engaged with children. Lisa Williams, director of the center, said that among the 900 residents and 142 children at one time, the oldest resident was 106 years old and their youngest child was 6 weeks.

"We saw intergenerational magic occur very quickly," reports Williams. "Many of our residents volunteer to read with the children. A 94-year old, critically ill resident comes in dressed as a fairy and interacts with the children. She said it gives her something to look forward to every week."

Williams said that many of the children do not have grandparents who live close by. This leaves a void in their knowledge which employees find is filled through the intergenerational program.

"The children learn shared culture and norms, while for our residents it reduces social isolation and fulfills a need to nurture and teach," she says. "It is very mutually beneficial."

Butts reminds us that it’s important to overcome the stereotypes many people have towards older adults and teenagers. She talks about the three P’s for the elderly—pains, pills and passing—and the three T’s with teenagers—texting, Twitter and Twilight. The trick, she said, is to create understanding between the P’s and T’s.

"It's interesting to me [that] some people make an assumption that older adults don’t want children around or that teenagers aren’t interest in what older adults have to say,” muses Butts. “In fact, if given the opportunity, these relationships will develop naturally. It does take some preparation and support, but people are finally waking up and smelling the demographics."

It seems fitting that the motivation for Brenda Rusnak Cassaday's award-winning intergenerational documentary, Cyber-Seniors, came from her own relationship with her daughters. When her girls were discussing how Facebook had improved their relationship with their own grandparents, they realized they had the makings for a good school project.

"They approached a local retirement home and gathered several of their school friends and started visiting the home a few times a week to teach the seniors how to get online," recalls Rusnak Cassaday, president of Best Part Productions. "My oldest daughter came home after filming that day and said 'Mom, I think this would make a great documentary film and since you’re not working any more, why don’t we work on it together.' For anyone else I would have said no; after all, I had just retired. But when your 20-something-year-old daughter actually wants to work with you, it is hard to say no."

She was surprised at the wonderful friendships that developed between the teens and elderly residents. The kids learned patience, how to teach and developed leadership skills.

"One of the most wonderful things I witnessed during the filming of Cyber-Seniors was the melting away of age stereotypes. And you see this in the film," she added.

Rusnak Cassaday and her daughters have gone on to start a not-for-profit to spread intergenerational internet teaching programs across the country. They have received funding from the AARP Foundation, the Best Buy Foundation, CVS-Silver Script and a number of other corporations.

See more information about the film, including a trailer, and how to participate at the Cyber-Seniors website.

- John Mitchell