When seniors engage with other generations – magic happens. I’ve spent my career promoting the benefits of intergenerational activities and experiencing the outcomes first-hand. I was personally called to my profession because my grandfather lived with my family when I was a young child. My special relationship with my grandfather and observing many of his day-to-day caregiving needs motivated me to pursue nursing as a career.
Similarly, I’ve talked with many others who were inspired to join the field after volunteering with senior organizations in their youth. Eventually, these conversations flicked on a light bulb: intergenerational interactions can have another benefit that current research has yet to show, including that they help create enthusiasm for a career in senior care.
As a nation, we are desperate for more caregivers and nurses focused on senior health, wellness and acute care. A recent report from Georgetown University predicted that the nursing workforce will face a shortfall of 193,000 professionals by 2020, primarily due to the wave of aging Baby Boomers.
While not every interaction will necessarily pique career aspirations as a caregiver, there are numerous benefits associated with engaging across generations.
Take the Graland Country Day School in Denver, for example. The school partners with Jiminy Wicket, an organization that teaches students how to play croquet so they can establish connections with seniors. Seventh grade students at Graland are paired with senior residents twice a month to play the sport and get to know one other. For seniors, the activity provides a sense of purpose imparting life lessons to a younger generation. The students gain valuable social skills, such as patience, kindness and a deep understanding about senior experiences, including memory loss. The program is one of many that highlights how increased interaction among children and seniors can enhance the mind, body and spirit of all those involved.
Mind: Stimulates Memory & Social Development
Research shows when people with Alzheimer’s or other form of memory loss participate in intergenerational activities, they perform better on memory tests. Regarding benefits for the development of young children, infants who have regular exposure to older adults experienced higher personal and social development by 11 months, compared to their peers.
Body: Promotes Physical Well-Being
According to research by Generations United, seniors who regularly volunteer with young people burn 20 percent more calories per week than those who don’t. They’re also less likely to experience falls and to use their canes. This is likely because when engaging with young people in physical activities, they are increasing blood flow, flexibility and balance.
Spirit: Builds Emotional Bonds That Last
Erik Erikson, one of the first psychologists to describe social development across the lifespan, concluded that during the final stage of emotional development, people look back on their lives seeking to find meaning and make sense of the lives they have lived.
When children or younger adults spend time with seniors it helps to dispel or conquer the negative stereotypes related to aging. One of the most important and beneficial outcomes from this is that younger people recognize and appreciate their shared humanity. Through engaging in meaningful activities with older adults, they come to realize that they truly have the same basic human needs, such as love and belonging, safety and self esteem.
Developing connections with a younger generation can help seniors feel a greater sense of fulfillment. For young people, these connections develop increased self-esteem and confidence, as well as better emotional and social skills. One of my favorite recent examples of this is a heartwarming video of the Tots 2 Seniors program in Beverly Hills, California.
By creating opportunities for children to connect with seniors, we could help fill the anticipated nursing and caregiver gap – simply because our kids will be groomed to grow a serving heart making them more inclined to take on the rewarding work of caring for tomorrow’s seniors.
Let’s pledge to continue fostering these relationships through intergenerational activities that benefit the mind, body and spirit. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead explained it best, “Somehow we have to get older people back close to growing children if we are to restore a sense of community, a knowledge of the past, and a sense of the future.”