After church one Sunday, I watched an elderly lady donate $50 to sponsor a teenager on youth camp. "What else can we do for our young people?" she asked, "And how can we get to know them?". Despite a large contingent of teenagers in our church, I am sorry to say that 'getting to know them' is no easy task - the older members of the congregation would be lucky to even come in contact with one.
I attend a wonderful church but it's large. The youth have their own service on Friday nights, 'young adults' (many pushing 40) on Sunday evenings, children rarely step foot in the church as they are whisked off to Sunday School on arrival, and everyone else attends one of the two Sunday morning services. There isn't a lot of cross-fertilisation. Small groups - meeting for prayer and fellowship in the week - are similarly categorised by age or 'life stage': over-50s; single professionals; young mums etc. It's great to catch up and connect with people our own age. But if we restrict our social circles to the familiar, what are we missing out on?
I flag this not as a criticism of my church but because it mirrors our wider society today. Over the last few decades, thousands of years of inter-generational mixing has broken down into pockets of age demographics. Our real-life social circles (as opposed to our online 'virtual' ones) are getting smaller and more tightly defined. We live increasingly in places that limit interaction with anyone else - gated communities, retirement villages and houses with high walls to protect our privacy. While we celebrate diversity, we segregate by age.
Historically, the older generation was revered and looked up to for their wisdom, experience and knowledge. With advances in literacy and technology, the role of the 'wise elder' has all but disintegrated, leaving many older people feeling superflous or excluded. We are more likely to turn to Google, Wikipedia or YouTube for help and advice today.
But younger generations have much to benefit from building relationships with their elders:
- It broadens their experience and understanding of the world.
- It helps to alleviate the fear of ageing and to understand and accept the ageing process.
The school children who made these observations* could benefit from a greater understanding of the ageing process.
* not Kings kids!
- It helps keep traditional stories and family history alive.
- It extends young people's social circles and gives them access to different opinions and viewpoints.
- Older people can give families extra support, love and nurturing - very important if no grandparents are available to children...
... not to mention that every elderly citizen is an individual with a unique personality, sense of humour and a whole range of valuable skills and abilities. Just think of the writers, film makers and social reformers who achieved some of their best work in their 80s!
(If you want a bit of inspiration, check out this young octagenarian. Ernastine Shepherd is a champion bodybuilder. She didn't even start bodybuilding till she was 71.)
Loneliness and isolation are the biggest contributors to depression and mental illness ... for all generations.
Here are some great examples of social initiatives aimed at nurturing cross-generational relationships:
A nursery in an old-people's home
Providence Mount St Vincent is an old people's home in West Seattle with 400 residents. It also runs a nursery five days a week for children aged six weeks to five years. The elderly residents take part in playschool activities, such as art and craft, music and story-telling with the young children:
Finnish millenials living in a retirement home
Housing is increasingly expensive and out of reach for many young people in Europe, as it is in Australia. Initiatives in the Netherlands and Finland facilitate cheap accommodation for millenials in retirement homes, in return for providing time and companionship to the elderly residents:
The Homeshare Australia & New Zealand Alliance (HANZA) matches elderly homeowners, who could benefit from help around the house and companionship, with responsible young adults prepared to lend a hand in return for affordable accommodation. The householder provides a bedroom and shared facilities. In exchange, the young homesharer provides approximately 10 hours a week of practical assistance such as cooking, cleaning, shopping and gardening, as well as providing company and the added security of having someone else sleeping in the home.
A music contest judged by Ozcare residents
On our very own Gold Coast, the innovative Way360 Group creates and organises projects with the staff of Ozcare Keith Turnball Place. Last year they brought together young local musicians and elderly residents for their 'Old is Cool' festival:
My children's grandparents live in the UK. My next door neighbour's grandchildren live in New Caledonia. There are many families on the Gold Coast in similar situations. Isn't it time to branch out of our age demographics to develop relationships with other generations?
A year ago my 19-year-old nephew (on a gap year from the UK) visited my elderly aunt (80) in the Blue Mountains. They barely knew each other but got on so well, my nephew ended up staying there for a year, working locally. She taught him how to knit, he set up her wireless network. She gave him free accommodation, he did the cooking and the cleaning. He served coffee and chatted to the oldies at her coffee mornings. She met all his new young friends who still go round and visit her now he has returned to England. They still Skype regularly and share a peculiar sense of humour with lots of 'in jokes' that no-one else understands. It is a strong, mutually beneficial friendship that neither they nor anyone else in our family would ever have expected.
Activites for children / teenagers and old people to do together
- Teach and pass on skills - cooking, looking after animals, computer skills, sewing, fishing, foreign languages
- Read to each other
- Play games together - chess, computer games, card games, puzzles etc
- Talk to each other about their experiences and share stories
- Listen to music, make music or sing together
- Play drama games / dress-up and roll play / make a short film
- Help each other - eg with homework or technology
- Complete a task together - eg prepare a meal, do some gardening, refurbish a piece of furniture, research a school project,
- Art and craft, scrapbooking, design
- Creative writing
- Tell jokes
- Research family tree
- Visit an art gallery/theatre/cinema
- Text/Skype each other
- Have a lunch date
King's High School students socialise with residents of Galleon Gardens Retirement Village
They say it takes a village to raise a child. But unless we value the older members of our community, what kind of children will we be raising?