Intergenerational connections: a solution to isolation and loneliness
Published December 16, 2021
“How are you?” It’s a question many of us hear daily. But how often do you really answer? How often does it feel like someone listens in a way that makes you feel seen and heard?
One-third of survey respondents between 18-25 years old reported that, for a period of four weeks, no one had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared,” (Loneliness in America). Sixty-one percent of young people reported serious loneliness– feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time,” (ibid).
“The experience of loneliness is 100 percent subjective,” Jeremy Nobel of the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School is quoted as saying in a 2020 Harvard Gazette article. “Isolation is the objective state of being physically separate. Loneliness is the self-perceived gap between our social connectedness and that which we aspire to have,” (Powell, 2020).
Social isolation has been extensively studied in another age group– older adults 65 years and older. Prior to the pandemic, 45% of older adults reported feeling socially isolated and lonely. That rate rose to 66% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the rest of us are preoccupied with day-to-day living, our adolescents (those making the transition from childhood to adulthood), young adults (18-25 year olds), and older adults (65 years old and older) are suffering. In the case of social isolation, they are practically invisible- islands unto themselves. In the case of loneliness, they may be surrounded by people or in our very homes, but they feel deeply alone, unseen, and disconnected. While the two are distinct conditions that can occur concurrently or separately, the consequences of isolation and loneliness are much the same.
Social isolation is life-threatening
More than eight million older adults were affected by isolation in 2017, according to AARP. Research has directly linked social isolation in older adults with higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, heart disease, stroke, and shorter life spans.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Holt-Lunstad at the 2017 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
At one time, that may have surprised you, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, more adults than ever experienced isolation and loneliness on a visceral level. Still, it was adolescent youth, those making the transition from childhood to adulthood, who experienced the mental health impacts of social isolation the most, according to extensive studies.
The U.S. Surgeon General (2021) found that emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls and 4% for adolescent boys in early 2021, as compared to the same period in 2019. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, national surveys showed major increases in mental health symptoms like depression and suicidal ideation in youth. For example, 40% more high school students reported persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness between 2009 and 2019, and 44% more students created a suicide plan.
During the pandemic, however, depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled. There are many factors contributing to these findings and each sub-group and individual has their own unique experience, and still, positive and supportive social connections are a protective factor that can both help prevent and avoid social isolation and its consequences, as well as help identify and address mental health symptoms before they progress too far.
But while many adults experienced relief upon re-entering a version of our previous lives, addressing the continued social isolation and loneliness of older adults and youth requires intentional effort.
Meaningful connections are a basic human need
Maslow put Love and Belonging at the center of his Hierarchy of Needs, aware of the fact that a sense of deeper connection is what gives life meaning. In her book Belong, Radha Argawal reimagined the Hierarchy of Needs and placed belonging at the very foundation of the hierarchy, as significant as food, water, and shelter. She even put love and positive touch here. Argawal defines belonging as a feeling of deep relatedness and acceptance.
Argawal isn’t an expert in aging, but she is an expert community builder and has successfully created spaces and opportunities that have helped create meaningful connections.
Across the United States, community-based organizations, national nonprofits, senior housing facilities, businesses, and governments have been exploring how to alleviate the social isolation and loneliness that disproportionately impact older adults, adolescents, and young people 18-25 years old. What have they found? That connecting these age groups with one another– meaningfully– is one key part of the puzzle.
Intergenerational programs create the space and opportunity for connection
“There is something magical that happens when young people and older adults bond over a common interest and both parties recognize the value, experience, and wisdom that they both bring to the table,” Rachel B. Cohen of Aging Dynamics says. Aging Dynamics is part of the backbone that supports LinkAGES, a collaborative of multi-sector organizations that prevent and reduce social isolation. Rachel B. Cohen is has broad and deep expertise in building healthy communities from a variety of perspectives.
Intergenerational programs benefit everyone who participates in them when designed and facilitated well. According to Generations United (2021), “Because of the socio-emotional exchange with an older adult, teenagers experience improvements with their emotions and mental health (Kim & Lee, 2017; Knight et al., 2017) as well as their physical health (Gilchrist, 2014; DuBois et al., 2011; Schroeder et al., 2017).” Generations United also points to research that older adults experience decreased social isolation, “a stronger sense of community, greater life satisfaction, and a stronger sense of purpose, self-worth, self-esteem, and empowerment,” (ibid).
“Skipping a generation– or two or three– is a thoughtful exclusion. It’s about moving away from the familial dynamic. When you have two generations that are sequential, something similar to the parent-child dynamic occurs. That’s not what we’re looking to do here,” Rachel says. “We’re looking to connect people meaningfully in a space of mutual sharing.”
A meaningful connection is when two people come to a mutual recognition that, despite the decades of age between them, they share so much in common.
That connection LinkAGES once defined as “long term”, but by evolving their programs realized that what the member organizations truly sought was meaning. As any of us know, a profound connection can occur in the space of weeks, years, or a lifetime– and they all alter the trajectory of our lives and how we see ourselves.
While the connection may feel like magic, there is significant attention to detail in creating the opportunity.
Intention, purpose, and necessary components
When LinkAGES Colorado was established in 2018, the member organizations (those who would be facilitating the programs), strategic partners, and backbone organizations Aging Dynamics and University of Denver Knoebel Institute, were ready to shake things up. Many intergenerational programs are a unidirectional experience. For example, an older adult helping a preschool student with an art project or a young person listening to the stories of an older adult. This structure leaves one person or age group essentially passive which risks losing the purpose of the program: creating mutually beneficial connections.
One of the core tenets of LinkAGES is questioning everything– question assumptions, role titles, meeting spaces, the structure of events, why certain results are popping up. Curiosity guides members and the collaborative as a whole to find ways to improve programs and continually find ways to create more meaningful connections. The process is always evolving. But as of right now, there are essential components to a LinkAGES intergenerational program.
Intentional design and purpose. When partnering organizations design a program, everyone comes to agreement about what they want participants to get out of the program, the change they hope to see, and how to evaluate against these goals. Once a purpose is established, as Priya Parker says in her book The Art of Gathering, that becomes a filter for how you make every other decision. Those decisions include things like how you choose a meeting space, where people sit, the lighting, the way people introduce themselves, the activities you choose and when you choose to do them. The goal is that participants and staff know why they’re gathering and feel truly connected to that purpose. LinkAGES doesn’t want their programs to be just another obligation someone signed up for, they want people to want to be there and to know that their presence is a significant part of the magic.
Engagement around a common interest. A program is engaging when all generations are actively participating in a shared interest by giving their own knowledge, receiving new knowledge, and showing up as themselves. If there is a third generation there, for example in a music class with toddlers and older adults, that third generation is also actively contributing to the experience.
Storytelling. Storytelling is the basis of any meaningful connection humans create. We share our own personal stories with one another and then we create a new story together that belongs to us. It’s not necessarily a requirement, but it’s inherently a part of every program LinkAGES runs. Sometimes it happens organically, like in a painting class or cooking class. Other times, it’s part of the program description and the driving activity.
Collaboration across facilitating organizations. LinkAGES Colorado is a collaborative that includes community-based organizations, businesses, housing facilities, and educational institutions. Members meet bi-monthly– with intentionality and expressed purpose– to brainstorm, problem solve, and learn together. Every intergenerational program is facilitated by two or more organizations who pool their knowledge, resources, and capacity to create a more profound impact on participants.
Involving more communities for greater healing
LinkAGES Colorado received a grant from Next Fifty Initiative to expand its work in two ways. Next Fifty is a Colorado-based private foundation that exists to create brighter, longer and healthier futures that unlock the potential of communities through an advanced funding approach.
The first focus of the grant is to develop resources like templates, educational articles (like this one!), webinars, and more to help other organizations and networks develop their own intergenerational programs– always by approaching the program design with purpose and form a place of adaptation rather than plug-and-play models.
The second focus is to help intergenerational programming reach more diverse communities and build bridges across diverse communities. LinkAGES will remain true to its core elements of collaboration, curiosity, and shared intention as it explores with communities how to best design and facilitate intergenerational programs. Each community has its own distinct culture, traditions, ways of gathering, communication moreys (or norms), and together we are exploring how meaningful intergenerational connections already are or can address isolation.
LinkAGES will seek out experts, community leaders, facilitators, etc. who can help members build the skills to navigate these conversations– especially when it comes to bringing diverse groups together. To create circumstances where people feel safe and can meaningfully connect will likely require new tools and specific expertise. The goal here is to be mindful and navigate thoughtfully.
The Denver Public Library, a member of LinkAGES, recently completed a program called Unboxed in partnership with Storycenter. Over the course of six weeks, teenagers and older adults who identify as LGBTQ+ met to craft a personal storytelling project through art and technology. Within the group of facilitators, several openly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community which helped intentionally create a container that felt safe for relative strangers to be vulnerable and open with one another.
And that is probably what’s most important to remember when approaching intergenerational programming. As Rachel B. Cohen says, when you’re bringing relative strangers together and asking them to share their stories, it’s your privilege and responsibility to create a space that is safe for them to be vulnerable and share honestly.
Our world today can feel overly connected at times, but what makes people of every age feel safe and seen is the depth of the connections in our lives. LinkAGES’ member organizations, strategic partners, and donors know that we can only establish and nurture meaningful connections when we can show up as ourselves and feel understood, accepted, and appreciated by those we’re with. By intentionally creating spaces that facilitate those types of connections and making it easier for other networks and organizations to do the same, LinkAGES seeks to prevent and reduce social isolation and its effects on adolescents, young adults, and older adults.
Powell, A. (2020, May 4) Social distance makes the heart grow lonelier. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/05/how-to-ease-loneliness-and-feel-more-connected/
Weissbourd, R., Batnova, M., Lovison, V., & Torres, E. (2021, February) Loneliness in America: How the pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness and what we can do about it. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory, (2021, December). Protecting Youth Mental Health. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-on-youth-mental-health-crisis-further-exposed-by-covid-19-pandemic.html
Agrawal, R. (2018). Belong: Find your people, create community, & live a more connected life. Workman Publishing Vp., Inc. https://belongbook.com/
Gonzales, E. phD, Kruchten, R, & Whetung, C. (2021, March). Generations United:Making the Case for Intergenerational Programs. https://www.gu.org/app/uploads/2021/03/2021-MakingTheCase-WEB.pdf
Parker, P. (2018) The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Riverhead Books. https://www.priyaparker.com/thebook