The value of intergenerational relationships

With the rapid growth of modern medicine and awareness in lifestyle and environmental influences, individuals can live longer and healthier lives. Approximately 15.2 percent of the U.S. population consists of individuals 65 years and older. To make the added years of life expectancy fulfilling, older adults need to stay socially connected and involved. One key method is through the development of meaningful relationships. Through the intergenerational paradigm, researchers have recognized a mutually beneficial relationship for both older and younger generations.

The focus on relationships between the young and the old has been centered around the historical and cultural bond. Traditionally, family dynamics were structured to allow elders to share their wisdom and experiences with the younger generations while also establishing the family’s norms and values. However, the social and economic changes have led to family structures to be transformed from single units to more complex and involved relationships. With the different family dynamics of single-working parents and two-working parents, there has been an increase in job opportunities. For this reason, many families move to newer cities and areas where there is higher job availability to support the family’s financial needs. These changes have separated the two generations and have left them both missing key relationships of life that can improve their overall well-being.

The familial changes occurring across the globe have disconnected both the young and older generations, which have traditionally shown to be a beneficial bond across different spectrums. While elder family members have the ability to serve as a resource for wisdom, support, and advice based on their past life experiences, younger individuals have just as much to offer to them. Younger family members have the ability to provide up-to-date insights socially and technologically, along with unconditional love, support, and encouragement to their older loved ones. With the recognition of this symbiotic relationship, bridging the gap between these two generations can benefit society as a whole. One way to lessen the gap is through mentorship. Since both parties have unique skills and knowledge to offer one another, establishing a mutual mentoring relationship would allow individuals to share information and connect.

The intergenerational approach strives to mimic the relationships between older and younger individuals to promote social growth and learning. However, the challenge is to mimic the natural bond with non-biologically related individuals. To overcome this barrier, intergenerational models have been developed to strengthen the mutual relationship between both generations. These models are grounded in social development theories such as Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development. The theoretical foundations highlight the parallel growth of young and old generations and how each requires one another to surpass their own developmental stages.

Most older adults are considered to be in the final stage of psychosocial development in which one considers their productivity and accomplishments over the course of their life. When one is successful in this stage, they achieve the virtue of wisdom. This comes with accepting one’s life and its endeavors while also finding it meaningful and complete. Establishing the mentor/teacher learning model allows older adults to be reminded and appreciate the life experiences they faced and the skills they learned from it to help serve as a guide to the coming generations. Likewise, older adults gain the opportunity to share their skills and learn about contemporary youth and their behaviors and personalities. These programs have shown improvements in younger individual’s self-esteem, interest levels in subjects such as language arts, attendance rates in schools, and in their literacy levels. Older adults also reported a 56 percent positive change in attitudes towards children and a 73 percent increase in overall satisfaction with life and wellbeing.

While intergenerational programs are an excellent way to connect generations, the approach we use to establish this program is key. Many of the existing intergenerational models are based around the idea of one generation filling in the gap for what’s missing. However, the key to a successful intergenerational model is to build mutual meaningful relationships between the generations in which both generations feel like they have something to contribute and gain from the relationship.

Another key element found in intergenerational relationships models focuses on the social capital gained as both generations work together toward a common goal. This paradigm highlights the unequal access to social capital for the young and the old due to the recent social and economic changes of the 20th century. To address the unequal accessibility, research studies emphasize the key mechanism to be learning. Through learning, one can build social capital through the interactions and connections they develop from the shared relationships and influences, including trust, reciprocity, and empowerment.

The recent development of programs grounded in the intergenerational paradigm recognizes the different needs of older generations and younger generations and utilize their individual strengths to bridge the gap. Through the implementation of intergenerational programs, not only are older adults gaining a sense of companionship and someone to share their knowledge and experiences with, but the youth are gaining the guidance and encouragement they need to shine in the rapidly excelling world.

Satya Moolani is a premedical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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