The Power of Intergenerational Connections

Among the many lessons that 2020 has taught us is that human happiness goes hand-in-hand with human connectedness. That counts doubly so for intergenerational relationships between older adults and younger individuals, according to a 2019 AARP study.

Researchers found that 93% of people on both sides of a close intergenerational friendship felt it came with major benefits, namely helping to see another perspective by sharing insights and opinions. The connections also create mutual inspiration.

“It gives me great pleasure and enjoyment to reach out to the younger generation,” says Chicago resident Benjamin Bailey, who says he’s 77 “going on 18” and has attended events with Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly’s Chicago Chapter.

“I try to lead [the younger people] down the right road — to be a leader not a follower and to avoid peer pressure that will lead to criminal activity and destruction,” he says. “It’s very rewarding when the younger generation appreciates my advice, but everybody [of all ages] has got to connect. You can learn from babies! They are amazing.”

Intergenerational connections take many forms — a grandmother and grandson, an older volunteer and a young employee, and neighbor to neighbor. We chatted with Chicago-area experts about why these types of relationships are so important — and how to keep them going in the Covid-19 era.

Why intergenerational connections are so important

As the internship and intergenerational coordinator for Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly’s Chicago Chapter, Christine Bertrand knows all about maintaining friendships that span generations and decades. “One of the reasons we started this program about 25 years ago was to give elders an opportunity to feel useful, to share their wisdom and their knowledge, and to really have a role to play in society, which is something they don’t get a chance to do much of anymore,” she says.

The organization works with some 1,200 older adults in the area, with an average age of 83. It typically organizes events that match them with youth as young as kindergarteners. In a non-pandemic year, events include museum visits and art projects.

The kids get just as much out of the experiences as the older adults. “You wouldn’t believe this, but a lot of young people have not met an elder in their lives,” Bertrand says. “So they are very anxious, [and it] opens up their eyes and gets them thinking about aging for themselves. [Aging] is part of life.”

The older adults offer plenty of advice, which helps the youths figure out which path to take on the many roads in front of them.

“You tend to learn a lot from older people in terms of how they feel,” says Judith Jordan, program coordinator of WISE (Weiss Initiative Serving Elders) at Weiss Memorial Hospital.

“You learn a lot about the past and about history, because they’re going to constantly tell you about their upbringing — what they ate and didn’t eat and [stories from] when they didn’t have TV. You learn a lot about life in general and how we have evolved to the points we have come to in society.”

A lot of the older adults Jordan works with like to chat about their childhoods, careers, marriages, and what they learned in school. “Some of them have you dreaming and give you someone to live up to — a focus in terms of where you can be,” she says.

Among Little Brothers’ more memorable activities was an elementary school standard: show-and-tell. “The goal was to show kids and elders that even if we look different, we are not that different,” Bertrand recalls.

One moment firmly stands out in her memory. “We were having an activity at a school, and we had these round tables with one elder and seven kids around her, and her face was beaming. She was so excited to have the attention of these kids and to be able to share her knowledge.”

Making connections

Of course, the realities of navigating Covid-19 as safely as possible has put many in-person intergenerational activities on hiatus. Here’s how local programs are coping in the meantime.

  • Making phone calls and sending snail mail. “We have been doing a lot of phone calling and mail exchanges since March,” says Josh Chartier, director of volunteer services and community engagement for Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly’s Chicago Chapter. “We are trying to get technology connections too, but many elders either don’t have a smart device or struggle with using one. The phone calling and mail has really made a big difference.”
  • Hosting all-ages Zoom events. Jordan hosts about 20 completely remote Zoom events every week with her WISE Senior Program. “We have social gatherings — a dinner party, a tea party — every week, where people get together and talk about nutrition, dating, everything! It’s just an hour, and they bring so much light, fun, and laughter that they are anxious for the next week.” With intergenerational relationships with schoolchildren, she encourages visual interactions, like asking the little ones to show off their latest toy or artwork.
  • Adding a creative touch. To add a festive feel, Bertrand and her team have enlisted school children to make holiday cards from scratch for older adults to deliver through December alongside gifts (like chocolates and coloring books) wrapped in hand-decorated bags. That touch of thoughtfulness and creativity brings major smiles. “Last year one of our elders sent a picture. She liked the bag so much that she cut off the handles and put it on her wall as a painting,” Bertrand says.
  • Saying hello with a note. At Weiss Memorial Hospital, the WISE senior members write cards to patients and medical staff. Words of encouragement, inspiration, and love fill the cards. “When people are isolated in their rooms, staff will deliver them a card that says [things like] ‘thinking about you,’ ‘praying for you,’ sentimental words and phrases,” Jordan says. In short: they share a little human kindness, something everyone can use more of — no matter the age.