Intergenerational Relationships

Learning From and Teaching Each Other

Many of us are at a point in our lives where there are fewer years ahead of us than behind us. As time moves along it reminds us that we are designed to pass the torch to the next generation. We spend lots of time planning on how to transfer our wealth and possessions but what about all we have gained from our life experiences – lessons we’ve learned, the wisdom we’ve gained and our own unique perspective on life?

Eric Erickson, one of the most imminent psychologists of the 20th century, speaks of generativity summarized in the phrase “I am what survives of me.” This refers to the natural inclination for us to be connected to those younger than we and to share what we have discovered in our life with them. And other than our own children and grandchildren, how do we do that? As a distinct demographic in society today, how do we create settings and opportunities to share our lives with those who are younger?

It is an intergenerational opportunity. Marc Friedman, CEO and President of, is one of the nation’s leading experts on longevity. He speaks of harnessing the natural affinity between young and old, particularly in ways that can narrow the opportunity gap facing so many young people. Friedman writes: “Scholars who study the obstacles confronting young people argue that one of the most important ingredients of their future success is the steady presence of caring adults with the time and inclination to support their development.”

According to Friedman, today’s older adults as a population segment is “vast and growing, with deep-rooted generative impulses.” He maintains they have the chance to gain greatly in health and well-being by engaging with youth and, further, with their abundant relationship skills have the ability to transmit valuable social capital – the very thing that young people need to build a safe, responsible and fulfilling life.

Friedman goes further, calling for a “generativity revolution” and urges the “over-50 population to come forward, stand up and show up for kids, not only their own kids and grandkids but all ‘our grandkids.’” We need to move away from those things that separate us from interacting with young people and be there for them as they indeed embody the future and need our support.

A recent piece posted on the Changing Aging Website, discusses the importance of not seeing “one generation filling in the gap for what’s missing but rather both generations recognizing that they have something to contribute and gain from the relationship,” as both benefit mightily from being together and interacting frequently. Making music together has provided a great way for generations to be together and intergenerational orchestras are popping up throughout the country.

Mike Rinehart plays trombone in the Intergenerational Orchestra of Omaha. He says this about his experiences with younger musicians: “We older people benefit from the energy of the younger players about music and life in general. Also, it’s a nice way for young people to learn that music is a lifetime deal. None of my friends from high school are still playing football – but a few are still playing horns.”

 A young vocalist agrees: “All of us younger members are so blessed by the wisdom the older members have to offer. The orchestra is the one thing in my life that has stayed consistent, and it ties together every other aspect for me.”

Warren Cohen, a longtime professional musician and the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra’s conductor says this about the experience of playing with younger musicians: “The difficulties that young players have are different from those you experience as you get older, and all our musicians help each other. Our older players may be inspired to practice more and our younger players learn tricks of the trade from more experienced musicians.”

Lorraine Marks, a viola and piano player who founded the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra moved to Florida and started a similar orchestra there. Her goal was and is to blend the generations through music and promote healthy aging and she takes the Florida Intergenerational Orchestra on the road. They perform at schools, county clubs and nursing homes. One evening a week the orchestra holds an open rehearsal at a senior residence. “We have this fabulous synergy with the audience there and I see our players benefiting from that too.”

A recent public opinion survey commissioned by Generations United and The Eisner Foundation found nearly nine in ten Americans think that serving both younger and older people at the same location is a good use of resources and four in five say that if a loved one needed care services, they’d prefer a care setting with opportunities for intergenerational contact.

In Jenks, Oklahoma, the pre-K and kindergarten students at the local elementary school actually go to school at a senior living facility where two classrooms are dedicated for this purpose. Residents greet the young ones each morning and read and play with them during the day.

The school administration sees firsthand the positive impact the “grandmas and grandpas” have on children’s reading scores and behavior. “The children are far less likely than their peers to need a remedial reading plan when they enter first grade, miss school less often and are less likely to be referred to the principal or engage in bullying. Plus, they are more likely to accept children with disabilities, demonstrate empathy and show compassion.” The difference, teachers say, is the daily attention and investment of older adults.

And the benefits flow both ways –interacting with the children gave the older adults a “renewed sense of purpose” which promotes optimism and overall health. One study has even shown that people with a sense of purpose live up to seven years longer.

Why haven’t these shared intergenerational sites flourished throughout the country given the mutual benefits to both older adults and children? It’s not easy – as multiple accrediting bodies with different standards and narrowly-focused funding streams, plus the boutique nature of the programs, inhibit developers who otherwise might take on the task. But it certainly is not impossible. A committed group of community leaders could champion and prioritize the effort with a vision and plan to develop shared intergenerational spaces.

West Michigan is blessed with numerous senior centers, schools and universities – all are great places to start investigating for future intergenerational sites. And, starting now, we can do this in our own lives. Volunteer with local schools, sign up to be a coach, or a mentor. It will have a positive effect for everyone!

You belong here.

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Beacon Hill at Eastgate is a distinctive, not-for-profit retirement community located in Grand Rapids’ desirable Eastgate neighborhood.

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