The Benefits of Intergenerational Interaction

By Margaret Franckhauser, MS, MPH President, and CEO, NextFifty Initiative

As we grow up, we make school, college and work friends. We meet neighbors and others who are involved in similar activities. Without knowing it, we become very focused on peers — who are usually a lot like us. But with the exception of families who are very intentional about multi-generational interaction (e.g. regular visits to the grandparents’/grandkids’ house), it isn’t common in our current society to cultivate intergenerational relationships. That’s too bad because all generations miss out when they limit their social contacts. They limit their perspective and ability to learn from others.

As population demographics shift, we at NextFifty Initiative see new opportunities for intergenerational sharing, and the benefits are great — cross-pollination of ideas, sharing of assets, new perspectives on life. From shared living spaces to social engagements, we learn as we age. Because getting older will happen.

One of our grantees, Bessie’s Hope, is very in-tune with the many benefits of intergenerational interactions and has several successful programs to encourage supportive relationships by pairing adult mentors with vulnerable kids. Both parties benefit.

By their definition, “Intergenerational programs are social service programs that provide opportunities for different generations to come together to share experiences, knowledge, and skills that are mutually beneficial and foster positive long-term relationships.”

Here are more reasons to bring together people of different ages. And this isn’t just a “match a millennial with an aging adult.” This is a way to see how much we can learn from each other, keep our society more engaged and actually improve lives.

Living arrangements

Intergenerational living has a variety of benefits. By finding ways to pair up disparate populations to live together, the goal is that people from different life stages can learn from and help each other. 
 The Intergenerational Homeshare Pilot in Boston takes grad students looking for a place to stay and pairs them with older homeowners who have extra rooms. According to a study on their website, Trulia, an online real estate resource, estimates that more than 3.6 million rooms in the US are unoccupied, and could be rented out. This study found that graduate students could save up to $24,000 each year by renting a room rather than a one-bedroom apartment. Also, the study found that there are more than 38,000 spare bedrooms in the homes of Boston baby boomers.

It would be thrilling to see this model take hold across the country.

Social activities 
A decline in social interaction is a major health risk for aging populations. There is a great deal of research that supports the fact that older adults tend to be happier and healthier when they maintain relationships. Whether it’s children’s laughter or Bunco with friends or sharing stories or technology lessons from a young adult, there are many ways that younger people can be the catalyst for helping aging adults stay social. The lesson? Sometimes just “showing up” can make all the difference.

Learning and laughter
This benefit can be so broad, it’s worth simply asking yourself, “What can I learn from someone in another generation?” Is it about the history of our country or another country? Is it about how we store information in the cloud? It can be the past, politics or religion, but it can also be as simple as, “Please explain the current obsession with reality TV” or “What advice do you have for someone in my life stage?” The relationship-building and knowledge-sharing can be incredible — and can make us all feel more connected.
The points I’ve made about social interaction bridge to this, but smiles and laughter is truly great medicine. And for older adults, this kind of social medicine is a great way to brighten the day.

For anyone interested in the longevity economy and ways to capitalize on the millions of aging adults, I highly encourage you to consider the opportunities in intergenerational innovation and how it can positively impact our society. It matters today and it will tomorrow.

NextFifty Initiative is an independent, Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that was formed to create brighter, longer and healthier futures that unlock the potential of communities. NextFifty Initiative has an advanced grant making approach designed to support concepts, projects and innovations that will benefit generations for years to come.