Creating Connections Across Generations

Colorado Grandparents Lead the Charge for our Children

Little girl looking through a plastic toy camera
Early childhood is a pivotal time for mental, physical, and emotional development. Save the Children Action Network advocates for investments in early childhood to ensure all kids are given a head start. Photo by: Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda.

I’m trying to look at the future for my grandchildren and all children. Early childhood education is just that foundation to help them succeed as human beings,” Yvonne Franklin, a mother of three, grandmother of ten, and godmother of many, shared as she spoke about her dedication to Save the Children Action Network (SCAN). 

LinkAGES was fortunate enough to sit down with Yvonne as well as two of her peers, Susan Hill and Kiki McGough, and Annalise Rosomer, SCAN’s Advisor for State and Electoral Campaigns for the Western Region. The topic was how these four women activate, educate, and empower Colorado grandparents to advocate for early childhood education.

Giving Children the Best Life Possible

SCAN is the political advocacy arm of the global humanitarian organization Save the Children. Save the Children started more than 100 years ago with the mission to give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. Across several states, SCAN works with volunteers and advocates organized by a Community action team model.

Community action teams organize, advocate, and campaign for policies and investments in early childhood education– for things like an increase in Federal funding for Headstart programs or unlocking new Colorado funding for full-day kindergarten. They provide testimony to legislative committees, organize events, meet with lawmakers locally and in Washington DC, and help to turn out the vote for ballot measures. Colorado advocates recently secured a universal meal program for all children called the Healthy School Meals for All.

Volunteers are community members, early educators, parents, caretakers, etc. who are experts in early childhood and can commit approximately 10 hours a month to the cause. Community action teams are headed by outreach leaders with commitments of two years– the roles that Yvonne, Kiki, and Susan play now. Part of their responsibilities include identifying, recruiting, and activating potential communities to join their teams.

Identifying a Previously Untapped Resource 

Several years ago, SCAN representatives presented to another philanthropy-minded group that Kiki is involved with, the Optimists.The members– most of whom were in their 80s, and many grandparents– leaned in with curiosity about the needs and solutions for early childhood education. Immediately afterward, the SCAN leaders hit the internet and discovered that there are more than 70 million grandparents in the US. 

“We thought, ‘This is an untapped advocacy group. They care about their children, love their grandchildren, and are invested in their children,” Kiki remembers. “We realized it could be a group where we could make a big change. One of the most exciting things working with SCAN so far has been to activate this group of Colorado grandparents and help them gain the understanding and voice to advocate for their grandchildren.”

Grandfather with grand daughter in early childhood
The COVID-19 lockdowns drastically changed the lives of grandparents. Some lost contact, some became primary caregivers overnight.

There was just one thing. Not every grandparent has the same background as these community action team leaders, however— especially grandfathers. 

“Raised in a time before early childhood education was even a thing, they didn’t have the background. But we could give them the understanding to use their voices to support legislation to help get services and support to young children,” Kiki said. 

Volunteers with a Lifetime of Expertise

Yvonne, Kiki, and Susan are retired from their full time careers, technically, but remain actively involved in their communities, side hustles, and, most importantly, their grandkids’ lives. Covering all of their accomplishments would be three short biographies in and of themselves.

Yvonne was in the tech industry for more than 25 years, and her passion for early childhood education is lifelong. She believes in the village model and has been taking care of children since she was thirteen years old. Her Godchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbors all gravitate to her and she to them. She joined Clayton’s Parent Ambassadors in retirement as she took on responsibility for her 4-month old great nephew. With more time, she began focusing on political advocacy. 

Susan, the Outreach Lead for Centennial and 2022 SCAN Advocate of the Year, has a background in early childhood and special education. She is currently at Arapahoe Community College, acting as an instructor and consultant for preschools in the community. She has always been actively involved in her eleven-year-old grandson’s life.

Kiki spent 27 years in special education as well as positive behavior support in public schools and also worked with the Colorado Department of Education working with 700 schools on setting up positive behavior climates. She still consults, is the President of the Board of the CO Parent Training and Information Center, and rescues puggles. 

For all of these reasons, they make excellent community action team leads for people who have less expertise than they do. 

Building blocks of life success.

The Pandemic Fueled Grandparent Advocacy

The grandparent cohort was formed more cohesively during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing shifted grandparent responsibilities immediately; in some cases forcing sudden separations and in others, like Kiki’s, grandparents assumed the role of primary care providers. Grandparents became acutely aware of the challenges that many of their children faced, and the opportunity for investment and support to help alleviate these challenges. 

Yvonne, Kiki, and Susan began informally cultivating these communities of grandparents and brought their own networks to SCAN’s organizing. They 

They developed specific outreach with grandparents to either continue their lifelong advocacy for early childhood or to begin their advocacy journeys.

There are lots of reasons people become advocates– fond childhood memories of their own grandparents, the empathic bond they feel with their grandkids, feeling far from their own families, or feeling sometimes a little too involved. 

“‘If I have to do third-grade math for the rest of my life, I’m going to just cry. I want these kids to go back to school,’” Susan laughs as she remembers how the lockdowns inspired grandparents to become more involved in advocating for early childhood support. “We want to go back to being the doting nanas. That has really energized folks to value all of the programs that are out there for all of the families.”

Early Childhood Care is Vital to Families, Communities, and the Economy

Research shows that when you invest early on in quality educational programs, individuals and communities reap the benefits of that into the future. With such a high percentage of households with caretakers working full-time, the need for early childhood childcare is real. The cost is high. Affording that as a family is a struggle– especially for families with only one primary caregiver or those who are geographically distant from their family support networks.

“In Colorado, the cost of living is so exorbitant and affordable housing is scarce. Early childhood care can be the same cost as in-state college tuition. We also have child care deserts in our state which makes it impossible at times for families to find quality care for their children at all,” Susan explained.

Little boy playing with a car.
SCAN operates in states across the country. In each one, community action teams are unique. Grandparents were identified by action team leaders as an untapped resource in Colorado at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns.

As we have all learned in the last several years, early childhood care is a vital support for our workforce and economy. This is actually one way that Susan explains that she connects with elected officials when she is advocating for early childhood education. She looks up if she is going to speak to someone who is a grandparent, which is a straightforward way to appeal to their empathy for SCAN’s causes. If not, she appeals to the logical needs of workforce health and the state of the economy. 

Return on Investment is High for Advocates– Grandparents or Not

Yvonne, Kiki, and Susan have accomplished a lot in their time with SCAN. Kiki has been with the organization for more than six years and remains committed. They table events to build their email lists, send postcards, write letters to the editors to raise awareness on ballot measures, and they meet with lawmakers. They also host events such as The Honoring Grandparents Event that Yvonne organized by partnering with Clayton Early Learning Center as well as Beloved Grandfamilies. They celebrated grandparents, many of whom were raising their grandchildren– and attendees wrote postcards to get out the vote for Healthy Meals for All. 

For whatever they put into the work they do with SCAN, it’s clear that Yvonne, Kiki, and Susan receive a great deal back. We discussed the significance of what it means for grandparents to show up for their grandkids. Kiki referred to an Oxford Study about the intergenerational connection that grandparents and grandchildren share that is unique to other relationships in their lives.

“The emotional empathic bond between grandparents and grandchildren is much stronger sometimes than the parent-child. They have a more intuitive awareness of the child’s needs sometimes. The Oxford Study said that when grandparents are involved in their grandchildren’s lives, they tend to have fewer emotional problems and get involved in fewer negative situations. We have a whole population of older adults who have been isolated and who need to be reconnected with the kids in their lives, too,” Kiki told us.

When asked if they would encourage older adults who are not grandparents to get involved in SCAN, their response was a resounding yes. 

Older adults experience social isolation, and volunteering with SCAN provides opportunities to connect with peers and people in your community– maybe going as far as lobbying in Washington D.C.. Beyond that, advocates learn valuable organizing and advocacy skills that can be applied to other areas of your life. 

By advocating with SCAN, volunteers get to see what they’re working on actually happen. The impact that they make is a positive difference in their home state– for their neighbors and for future generations. 

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Interested in getting involved with SCAN? Check out their website to find out if they have a presence in your state! 

Unboxed Digital Storytelling Workshop 2022

Unboxed Flyer with a rainbow exploding out of a box representing the shared stories of LGBTQ individuals

LinkAGES and The Denver Public Library are partnering with StoryCenter to create and facilitate a storytelling program that will connect you with 8-12 (4-6 from each generation) LGBTQ+ elders with LGBTQ+ teens. Through three, full-day facilitated sessions, you will use creative engagement, participatory art-making, and collective editing to discover and shape transformative stories from your lives and share them with your fellow participants. This process will build empathy and connection among the different aged members of the group.

StoryCenter facilitators will guide you through a collaborative creative process using images, music, and voice narration to make your stories into short videos.

DATES OF WORKSHOP:
Pre-Session (Virtual, on Zoom) – November 12th, 2022, 11am-12pm MST

In-Person Sessions:
Session 1 – Sunday, November 20th 2022, 10am-6pm MST
Session 2 – Monday, November 21st 2022, 10am-6pm MST
Session 3 – Tuesday, November 22nd 2022, 10am-6pm MST

Free and in-person. You must be able to attend all meetings.
You will also receive a stipend of $250 for your participation.

You do not need tech skills or previous arts experience to participate.

Technology: This workshop requires that you bring a laptop.

If you do not have access to certain devices, we may be able to provide this for you!

To get a feel for what Unboxed looks and feels like, check out our article about the Unboxed Pilot Program from 2021.

 

Your facilitators will be:

Jonny Chang photoJonny Chang: A recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jonny is a creative writer, performer, budding musical producer, filmmaker, sound designer, artist, and change-maker. He is an advocate for diversity in the arts, and is passionate about ensuring more people of color, people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, women, and other marginalized groups are given platforms for their voices on- and off-screen. He hopes to one day become a full-time artist, while lending his expertise to the next generation. He reps the 510 to the fullest and enjoys watching the sunset. BA, Communication Arts and English Creative Writing, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Holly McClelland photoHolly McClelland: Holly is a graphic designer, filmmaker, editor, and expert rock skipper living in Denver. Since joining StoryCenter as a facilitator in 2012, she survived cancer– all the while keeping her sense of humor. Holly played a big role in a storytelling project with the Positive Women’s Network in Colorado, holding space for women living with HIV. She is passionate about ensuring more people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are supported with story work and making sure their voices are listened to. She is a Denver native and enjoys spending time in the woods on skis, listening to the sounds of the forest. She has her BFA in Graphic Design and Painting from Colorado State University.

This program is a joint project of the Denver Public Library, StoryCenter, and LinkAGES. It is generously funded by Centura Health and Equity Advancement Fund.

Youth, Loneliness, and a Dangerous Mental Health Crisis

Loneliness is a felt experience. One that you can call to memory easily, in your body and heart. Like hunger or thirst, it is the feeling of being in one condition and wishing to be in another, it is a feeling of missing something so fundamental to our needs that we often take it for granted when we are sated. Loneliness can be social, caused by actually physically missing the presence of others; it can also be emotional, we can be surrounded by people and yet still feel alone.

Loneliness is a sweeping epidemic amongst our children, adolescents (those making the transition from childhood to adulthood), and young adults. According to a 2021 CDC survey, 61% of 18-25-year-olds reported feeling serious loneliness- “frequently” or “almost all of the time or all of the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey The repercussions of feeling lonely include rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality as well as morbidity and increased vigilance for social threats. 

Loneliness is a lack of meaningful connection. Our young people are experiencing higher rates of loneliness and mental health crisis than ever before– and it is likely because they have no one to turn to. 

Teenage boy stands alone
Photograph by Karsten Winege Art via Unsplash.

 

Three Types of Loneliness

According to one school of thought, there are three types of loneliness that range from our day-to-day experience to our built environment and personal histories. See the grid below.

Type of Loneliness

Factors Associated

Situational

Unpleasant experiences, interpersonal conflicts, accidents, disasters, etc.

Developmental

Perceived personal inadequacies, developmental deficits, significant separations, poverty, living arrangements, physical and psychological health, etc.

Internal

Personality, feeling of autonomy and control, mental distress, low self-esteem, feeling guilty or ashamed, poor coping strategies, etc.

Adolescents and young adults are dynamic human beings in environments largely outside of their own control. They are developing physiologically and psychologically, at times rapidly and with little awareness or understanding. They’re learning who they are and how to be in the world, developing their interpersonal skills in a number of different environments and communities including in school, at home, on social media, and in extracurricular activities. With so many variables, there is an interplay of diverse factors that can cause loneliness in so many young people. In the same vein, whether loneliness causes mental illness or vice-versa is not so easy to pull apart.

Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)

House in rural Colorado, nothing around
The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on Youth Mental Health said that living in rural areas with limited access to school or mental health services puts rural youth at greater risk of having mental health challenges.

Loneliness is a single factor that can impact youth mental health. When we look at the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), it is easy to place loneliness within the single category of Social and Community Context. But loneliness and mental health are far more complex than that. SDOH are the conditions in which people are born, live, work, play, and age. These conditions affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes. They’re categorized into the five domains below. 

SDOH include things like:

  • Safe housing and access to green spaces like parks
  • Racism, discrimination and prejudice based on ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
  • Violence, neglect, and abuse
  • School environment, educational quality, opportunities to learn
  • Household income, material wealth
  • Access to healthy foods and clean water
  • Language and literacy skills
Healthy People 2030 SDOH Graphics
Social Determinants of Health include: 1. Economic Stability 2. Education Access and Quality 3. Health Care Access and Quality 4. Neighborhood and Build Environment 5. Social and Community Context

 

Children, adolescents, and young people (as well as adults) face considerable inequities across SDOH which leads to physical and mental health disparities. As you can see, the SDOH are the same factors that impact loneliness.

The loneliest generation in history: Gen Z

Generation Z (Gen Z), people born between 1997-2012, are more likely to say they were lonely in childhood than any other generation before them. Compared to only 24% of Baby Boomers, 56% of Gen Zers felt lonely at least once or twice per month during childhood, according to The State of Mental Health in America (2022). Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and suicidality- amongst other mental health challenges- in children, adolescents, and young adults were increasing quickly in the decade prior to the pandemic. In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for 10-24-year-olds.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the reality of all young people in the United States and across the world. Because of the vast and intersectional inequities across the SDOH, some children were more negatively impacted than others by the pandemic’s forced social distancing requirements, sickness, and the immense loss of life. During the pandemic, “44% of high school students reported that, in the previous 12 months, they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row,” according to the Pew Center for Research.    

More than 140,000 children in the US lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver due to COVID-19, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. This statistic is cited in the AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health released by American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association, respectively.

In their short lifetimes, Gen Z has faced a global pandemic, climate crisis, a politically and socially divided country, and so much more. Adding the cultural and individual experiences of racism, prejudism, and inequity makes their load a heavy one to bear- and they’re doing so alone.

Teenage girl in a pink hijab sitting alone in a building hallway
Photograph by Muhammad Faiz Zulkeflee via Unsplash.

"This worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020.”

Loneliness has a long-term impact

A study published in 2013 examined the consequences of loneliness on children, adolescents, and young people. At that time, the researchers found that as many as 80% of youth under 18-years-old reported being lonely at least sometimes. They found that the effects of loneliness accrue over time. Not only that, but multiple studies produced evidence that loneliness in youth was correlated to a 300% higher likelihood of developing depression in the future and that this impact could last for years, (ibid). These studies pointed to the possibility that it is actually the duration of loneliness, rather than the intensity of it, that increases risk of later depression.

The converse of this, worth noting in another study, is that only 7% of adults in the US who were never lonely in their childhood report that they often feel lonely or isolated today, (American National Family Life Survey December 2021). 

The youth mental health crisis is fatal

This year, 2022, firearms became the most likely way that a child, age 1-19-years-old, will die in the United States of America. 65% of those children’s deaths will be homicides and 35% of those children’s deaths will be categorized as suicide. After motor vehicle accidents, drug overdoses and poisoning follow as the leading causes of death amongst our young people. (It’s important to note that some poisonings and drug doses are accidental).

“Most commonly what makes the news is these horrific mass shootings, but they are a small aspect of the overall problem. The smallest portion are the mass shootings. … it’s these daily deaths that are occurring making up the totality of what we are seeing,” Patrick Carter, co-author of a research letter in the New England Journal of Medicine and co-director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, told NPR in April 2022.

Still, the US is grappling with a school shooting crisis. More than 311,000 children have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine according to research done by the Washington Post.

The Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, is dedicated to reducing violence in society through the use of data and analysis to improve policy and practice. Psychologist Dr. Jillian Peterson and sociologist Dr. James Densley co-founded the project; they are best known for their work on gun violence prevention and mass shootings, funded by the National Institute of Justice. 

Over 80% of mass shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to their shooting, most often in the months and years beforehand, and 39.5% were demonstrating isolation. In an analysis of 134 school shootings or attempted school shootings, 80% of shooters were suicidal prior to the shooting. 

“There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts."

What this data suggests is that school shootings (which are also suicides) performed by young people could have been prevented if someone close to them had taken an interest in the mental health crisis that they were experiencing.

Strategies to help our kids are rooted in connection

Children, adolescents, and young adults are exposed to significant stressors and trauma in modern day society. We are not invalidating their experiences, and the truth is that children have faced war, famine, and family struggles throughout history. It is the loneliness and mental health crisis that they are experiencing so disproportionately compared to previous generations. And loneliness is a lack of meaningful connections.

Having a trusted older adult who young people can turn to about serious matters is a major protective factor for youth mental health across all demographics and identities. 

A veteran sits with two teenage girls, telling stories
“(Veteran’s name) and I have been regularly communicating and it has been great. We email, text, and even send each other letters. I sent him a mask my mom and I made in the mail and he sent me his book. I do hope I can see him again because we have built a really great connection.” Teenage participant in Wish of a Lifetime (from AARP) Passage of Heroes program. It paired Golden High School students with Veterans in Jefferson County.

Where can these adults be found? Who is responsible for our youth? All of us.

Having two or more mentors helps children, adolescents, and young adults:

  • Learn how to regulate their emotions
  • Create clear expectations for values and behavior
  • Develop healthy coping skills 
  • Foster self-esteem
  • Support development of interests and skills
  • Develop positive norms for themselves and those around them
  • Maintain physical and psychological safety.

The US Surgeon General’s Advisory in November 2021 also shared a list of recommendations for families, schools, healthcare institutions, community organizations, funders, media, and society at large. Read the Advisory and strategies here

Topline recommendations include:

  • Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.  
  • Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.  
  • Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care. 
  • Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings. And expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.  
  • Address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families, and caregivers.
  • Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly
An older woman stands with two teenagers with photographs in an intergenerational program for belonging.
Photography & Storytelling is an ongoing intergenerational program. It brings youth and older adults together to learn photography skills and share life stories. It's as simple as that.

Society has finally woken up to the reality that our children, adolescents, and young people are suffering and that it is our responsibility to do something about it. We know the factors and determinants that are impacting youth loneliness and mental illness are intersectional, and so our response should be as well. To help our kids, we need to create change within those areas especially for those kids who are most vulnerable. And it will take a village.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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LinkAGES Colorado creates opportunities for meaningful intergenerational connections between youth and older adults (50-years and older). By bringing generations together over shared activities and storytelling, we cultivate spaces that allow meaningful interactions and foster mental health amongst all participants. These intergenerational programs can occur in school settings, neighborhoods, and in communities. We host photography classes, music therapy classes, and cultural programs. Learn more about the benefits for both older adults and young people in our article Intergenerational connections: A solution to isolation and loneliness.

Want to get involved? Contact us for updates!

Further Reading and Sources

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

Hawkley, L.C. Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, 940 E. 57th St, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

Tiwari, SC. Loneliness: A disease? Indian J of Psychiatry. 2013;55(4):320–22.

Healthy People 2030, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Retrieved 06/05/22, from https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/social-determinants-health

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

Hawkley, LC., & Cacioppo, JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Ann Behav Med. 2010;40(2):218-227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

Coz, J.W., Rich, S., Chiu, A., Chong, L., Muyskens, J.,  Thacker, H., & Ulmanu, M. The Washington Post’s database of school shootings. Retrieved 05/27/22. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/

Peterson, Dr. J. & Desnley, Dr. J. (2019). The Violence Project: Mass Shooter Database Key Findings. https://www.theviolenceproject.org/mass-shooter-database-3/key-findings/

Warner, M. (2022, May 27) Two professors found what creates a mass shooter. Will politicians pay attention? https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/27/stopping-mass-shooters-q-a-00035762

Intergenerational connections: a solution to isolation and loneliness

“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.

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

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). 

Young girl laughing with head back as she and an elder make eye contact during art class.
A meaningful connection at a LinkAGE's program in partnership with Kavod Senior Life.

“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.

Mommy and Me Intergeneration Music Therapy Program
Mommy & Me Music Class at Shalom Park involved three generations around a shared love of music.

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.  

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Photo by Jason Leung via Unsplash.

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.

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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.

Resources

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