A new report on intergenerational programs calls for shared spaces to help combat isolation among the elderly.
When Samantha Flores wasn’t taking classes at the University of Maryland for her master’s degree in cello performance this past academic year, she could often be found hanging out with a bunch of 80-somethings. Ms. Flores, 28, along with another music student, was participating in a new artists-in-residence program at Collington, a nonprofit retirement community in Mitchellville, Md.
In return for free room and board, Ms. Flores gave concerts to the residents, accompanied the choir on her cello and taught them about music — while getting to know them through happy hours and dining hall meals.
The program at Collington, an affiliate of the Kendal Corporation, is one of many new programs bringing together old and young people, from babies through graduate students, with the idea that each generation has something to offer the other.
“It’s the way people were meant to grow up and grow old in connection with each other,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that aims to build bridges between old and young.
On Tuesday, the Ohio State University and Generations United released an expansive survey — the first in 20 years — of 180 intergenerational programs. With 39 percent of grandparents having a grandchild living more than 500 miles away, according to a study by Generations United and MetLife Mature Market Institute, these programs create new ways to foster intergenerational interaction.
“Resources are more wisely used when they connect the generations rather than separate them,” Ms. Butts said.
The report found strong public support for these programs. Benefits included reducing loneliness for older adults and increasing levels of engagement for dementia patients who interacted with children. Among adults who participated in such programs, 97 percent indicated it allowed them to feel happy, interested, loved, younger and needed. Children involved in the programs demonstrated higher levels of empathy and a greater ability to regulate their behavior than those who hadn’t participated in such programs.
“This is the wave of the future among senior housing providers,” Ms. Butts said. She pointed to another common example of such programs: a preschool class located in the middle of a skilled nursing home.
“Shared sites can create new environments to confront ageism, break down the barriers of age-segregation and forge long-lasting and life-changing intergenerational bonds,” the report said. “Intergenerational programs bring purpose to the lives of young and old.”
Marilyn Haskel, a 72-year-old resident of Collington involved in selecting the students, said the young people often invited fellow music students to practice on the grounds, resulting in pop-up concerts. With no family nearby, Ms. Haskel said, “it was delightful for me to sit down and have conversations about their careers and what they’re planning.”
When residents learned that Ms. Flores didn’t have a car, they often drove her to campus. Ms. Flores struck up close friendships with many of the residents, including one she met in September who had recently been given a brain cancer diagnosis.
“We bonded over Bach,” she said, engaging in lengthy conversations about him. When the man died in February, Ms. Flores played a piece he had requested at his funeral: Bach’s “Sarabande: Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor.”
“I promised I wouldn’t cry, but you can’t help that,” she said. “It was a very emotional moment.”
College students at other campuses will have the opportunity to interact with older adults in a program being rolled out this fall called Intergenerational Solutions in Housing. Started by Generations United and New York University and partially supported with a grant from the AARP Foundation, it aims to address two problems: social isolation among older adults and student debt. Graduate students in social work will be matched with older Americans who have a spare room. Ernest Gonzales, an assistant professor of social work at New York University, felt these students were prime candidates, since they have high levels of maturity and altruism and many carry a significant amount of student loan debt.
Students will either live rent-free in exchange for services like grocery shopping and shoveling snow, or they can opt to pay below-market rent with no formal exchange of services. A licensed social worker will oversee the recruitment of graduate students who will handle the on-the-ground matching services, run background checks and home inspections and provide routine check-ins to ensure the matches are successful. A rigorous vetting process will aim to safeguard against thefts and other types of abuse.
“Every city is wrestling with social isolation” among older adults “and high housing costs, so there’s a real hunger for launching this,” Dr. Gonzales said. The program will debut this fall at N.Y.U. and Washington University in St. Louis; the goal is to expand it to many college campuses across the country. Though an AARP survey found 38 percent of those 45 and older indicating a willingness to share their homes, it’s unclear how many would actually participate, said Emily Allen, senior vice president at the AARP Foundation. She says this could be an important income generator for low-income older adults, but it needs to be tested.
The Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center’s new Anita May Rosenstein Campus, scheduled to open early next year, will connect and provide expanded services to two of the most vulnerable populations in the area: seniors and youth. It will contain 99 units of affordable housing for seniors, 100 beds for homeless youth, and new senior and youth centers. Many elderly L.G.B.T. people in Los Angeles live at or below poverty level and face isolation and discrimination in traditional senior facilities. In addition to health care and social services, the center will provide intergenerational programs.
In promoting social engagement, such programs provide “one of the pillars of healthy aging,” said Dr. Annette Medina-Walpole, chief of the division of geriatrics and aging at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry. “This is very much in line with what needs to be happening to engage our older adult community,” she said.
Yet the Generations United report identified barriers to getting the programs rolled out on a wide scale. Facilities for young and old each have their own requirements on things like staff ratios and square footage which may not be in sync. One recommendation is to ensure that accreditation is more uniform and best serves both populations.
Ms. Flores hopes those challenges can be overcome, since her experience left such a lasting, positive impression. As her year at Collington comes to a close this August, she plans to stay in touch with the residents, many of whom she now views like family. “I came here thinking I was going to teach them, but I really think they taught me,” she said.