Successful Aging: How can we educate young people about aging?
Q. I am an 81-year-old woman who has been housesitting for a friend. Needing some exercise, I decided to go for a swim at her local community pool. As I moved into the pool, a young lifeguard asked me, “Don’t you think you should use a lifevest?” I replied, “No, I don’t think so. I have completed three triathlons that include swimming.” Is there some way we can educate young people about aging? She clearly made an assumption about me because of my age and likely how I looked in my bathing suit. S.C.
Let’s begin by trying to understand the young lifeguard’s comment. She may have just completed lifeguarding for a swim class of older adults who were not athletic swimmers or had some physical challenges. She may have generalized her experience to you.
There are other perspectives to consider. This lifeguard may have had limited experience with healthy and vital older adults which could have influenced her view about older people. Ageism can start at an early age, beginning in childhood. Grandparents often are children’s first and sometimes only contact with older people. Today, grandparents frequently do not live close to their children and grandchildren, limiting their opportunities to engage with older people. In the absence of such experience, children at an early age can adopt society’s perception of aging which often is not positive.
Furthermore, children may have grandparents or older family members whom they do see and who have limited mobility, are slow moving, cannot hear well, have some memory problems or cannot live independently. If children have limited experience, they can easily generalize their observations and experiences to all older people. Add to that, the exposure to ageism prevalent in television, entertainment, advertisements, greeting cards and the media.
Then there are systemic reasons children may have age biases. Our society separates the generations. We see this in housing with 55-plus communities, in swimming pools for adults only, in classrooms and even in religious organizations that separate youth and older adult activities.
Yet the connection between older and younger folks is a natural one as noted by Marc Freedman, founder and co-CEO of Encore.org in his book “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations,” (PublicAffairs, 2018). He writes, “The old, as they move into the latter phases of life, are driven by a deep desire to be needed by and to nurture the next generation; the young have a need to be nurtured. It’s a fit that goes back to the beginning of human history.”
Teaching about aging in schools has received attention. The subject appears in children’s literature, some school curricula and in research studies all with the purpose to promote positive attitudes about aging beginning that begin in youth and continues across the lifespan.
One of the most effective ways to combat and even prevent ageism is to develop shared positive experiences between and among the generations. Here are just three organizations that do just that.
Gen2Gen. This nonprofit organization is Encore.org’s campaign “to mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today, bringing younger and older people together,” as referenced in its website https://generationtogeneration.org/. The organization recently awarded innovation fellowships to elevate, catalyze and support the work of 15 visionaries of all ages with ambitious initiatives to bridge generational divides. Over a nine-month period, the fellowship recipients will receive coaching, help in program design, $10,000 to advance their co-generational work, exposure to funders and journalists and opportunities to showcase their work plus more.
Sages and Seekers. Its mission is to develop empathy, combat social isolation and dissolve age-related segregation within our communities, meeting the need of both young adults and elders to make sense of their lives. The sages are aged 60 and older; the seekers are students aged 14 to 24. Sages and Seekers creates an intergenerational community through the art of authentic conversation. Their program, both virtual and in-person, fosters open communication by creating forums to discuss life and discover commonalities between generations, helping to shatter stereotypes and diminish ageism. https://sagesandseekers.org/about/
Generations United. The mission of Generations United is to improve the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs. The organization coordinates intergenerational projects, promotes an intergenerational approach to framing public policies that impact children, youth and older adult issues. They also provide technical assistance on intergenerational programs, policies and systems. Executive Director Donna Butts, recently testified at a Senate Congressional hearing on “Strengthening Support for Grandfamilies during the Covid-19 Pandemic and Beyond.” Note 2.7 million children are raised by grandparents or next of kin.
S.C., thank you for your important question that draws our attention to the importance of education and the value of connecting the generations. Keep swimming, stay well and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity