As I grow older, I’m reminded of something my mother has always said, “Mother Nature and Father Time, two forces within our universe you can’t regulate.” Life expectancy in the U.S. has increased from an average of 46 years in 1900 to more than 77 today. “Every 7.5 seconds another baby boomer turns 50,” says Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. By 2030, analysts predict more than 70-million Americans—twice the number in 2000—will be 65 or older. At that time, older adults will comprise nearly one in five people.
The goal as recreation providers is to enhance the “quality of life” for the communities we serve through programs and events for residents of all ages. However, outside the occasional “Family Night,” seldom are there activities that provide the opportunity for youth to intermingle with more seasoned residents over a longer period of time.
Intergenerational programming (IP) is now providing that opportunity. IP includes activities designed to bring together individuals of different ages to promote interaction. More specifically, IP is designed to connect youth to older adults.
IP is experienced in many formats. The most traditional is one in which youth serve older adults. An example is youth visiting adults at nursing homes to provide entertainment, such as caroling during the holiday season. Or older adults can serve youth. A large number of older adults serve as mentors by assisting with homework and sharing other activities after school. A byproduct of such programming is the reduction of “purple recreation” during after-school hours. In Los Angeles, Calif., many youth are at a high risk for gang violence. Staffer Olu Hawes of a local recreation agency states, “The kids listen to the older people, especially if they’ve come up in the same neighborhoods and been through some of the same things.” (Hannan). The last format is one in which youth and older adults serve together. Community garden projects and environmental-education initiatives are examples in which youth and older adults can work together to bring about sustainable practices and changes community-wide.
Benefits Of IP
Providing IP is beneficial in many ways, for it can galvanize a community on issues that impact all residents. IP has the potential to bring together diverse groups and networks that can aid in a cultural exchange of traditions, values, and overall perceptions of people of different genders, race/ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, and religion. Studies show that IP helps youth enhance their overall social skills and increases their ability to problem-solve. Academic performance has been shown to improve as a result of tutoring by older adults. Youth involved in IP mentoring programs are 46 percent less likely to report the initiation of drug use. Among minority youth the statistic increases to 70 percent. Older adults experience some of the same benefits as youth while participating in IP. Older adults are given an opportunity to remain productive, useful, and contributive to society. Through IP older adults can close the “digital divide” by learning new technology. Finally, IP promotes emotional support for older adults in the same ways it does for youth. Both parties experience an increase in self-esteem and enhancement in personal coping skills. Most important, there is a development of a sense of purpose for youth and a rejuvenation of purpose for older adults.
How To Start IP
The startup of IP can happen formally or informally depending on the opportunities for youth and older adults to interact in a given community. The first step is to contact local senior-retirement communities, and independent and/or assisted-living centers, as well as local special-recreation associations. Distribute a simple survey to find the level of activity, intensity, and duration of programs in which older adults would like to participant. Gather all areas of interest to determine if IP is desirable or even feasible. Simultaneously, distribute the same information in local school districts. Nowadays, most districts require youth to complete community-service hours. This is a great opportunity to introduce IP. Another way to start IP is through partnerships with various institutions. Below are examples of IP across the country that focus on environmental education.
Intergenerational Outdoor School Program (Penn State University)
Intergenerational Outdoor School is a residential educational program developed by the university in which 4th graders and older adults are brought together for 4 days to learn about nature and gain insight into other people’s values for caring for the environment.
Family Friends Environmental Health Project (Temple University)
The U.S. Administration on Aging funds “Family Friends” programs around the country for children with special needs. Three of these programs focus on environmental health. Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning conducts one of these programs. For 6 to 12 weeks, senior volunteers work with these children. Together they learn about asthma, lead poisoning, second-hand smoke, and other house-based environmental health risks.
Habitat Intergenerational Program (HIP) (Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont, Mass.)
HIP is a community of learners of all ages, interests, and cultures who are committed to fostering intergenerational relationships, environmental learning, and a sense of environmental stewardship. HIP promotes awareness and conservation of the natural environment through educational programs and community-service projects coordinated by Massachusetts Audubon’s Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary.
Garden Mosaics (Cornell University)
Garden Mosaics is a science-education and community-action program in which youth, ages 10 to 18, learn about plants and planting practices from older gardeners. The program provides a model for balancing the knowledge of older adults and scientists with youth in an urban-community education and action program.
Challenges that factor into providing IP include youth schedules that are in constant fluctuation due to structured school activities. Naturally, health-related issues come into play for older adults, whether due to aging or serious medical conditions. Also, as with all budgets, there are always financial challenges. However, with IP grant funds are available for specific program areas. For instance, the EPA Aging Initiative grants seek to better understand ways in which environmental health hazards associated with older adults can be reduced. The grants seek to:
- Educate older adults about environmental health issues
- Train older adults to be environmental stewards in their communities
- Foster intergenerational projects that address environmental risks
- Enhance environmental health and quality of life through smart growth strategies targeting improved air and water quality.
For available funding sources, visit www.epa.gov/aging/ia/grants.htm.
As with any area of programming, there is no guarantee patrons will sign up. Conducting a thorough needs-assessment prior to offering IP is necessary. You can also poll participants at an agency to determine if there is a desire among the members. Contact local auxiliary clubs, such as Rotary, Lions, block clubs, VFW, churches, hospitals, etc., to determine any interest in partnering to provide IP. Another point of contact is the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Extension services are also available through state-designated land-grant universities. In most states, the educational offerings deal with agriculture and food, home and family, the environment, community economic development, and youth in 4-H. Finally, be sure to contact the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) at www.seniorcorps.gov. This nationwide program is comprised of retirees (55 and over) who desire to remain active in the community.
The secondary gains from providing IP are endless for a community. The establishment and benefits of collaboration among diverse groups in a community work to foster a sense of togetherness and pride. Intergenerational programming is the vehicle to make it happen.
Dr. June N. Price-Shingles is a former practitioner in Parks and Recreation (1988-2007), and is currently Associate Professor and Director of the Recreation Program at Chicago State University in Chicago, Ill.
Hannan, Maureen. (2012, May). “Pro Bono Boomers, The over-55 generation wants to help, but in new ways.” Parks and Recreation, p.48.