In my work with girls and women, I understand the power that sharing our stories can have, especially when women find the courage to tell their truths and share their life lessons with the girls coming up behind them. I firmly believe that we have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them.
I have recently been given the opportunity to participate in a pilot project that both simplifies and expands upon this work by connecting high school students with elders in an environment that encourages story telling and relationship development. The experience has been transformative.
Unlike many other societies, we live in a society that tends to group people by age. We are herded together in K-12 schools, and then, when we are young adults who could truly benefit from the wisdom of our elders, many of us head off to college to figure it out for ourselves–among thousands of other young adults–which often devolves into destructive behaviors. Next comes career, and in some cases marriage, partnership, and parenthood. Here again we tend to isolate by age. As new parents we could certainly benefit by interacting with parents who have already been there, yet instead we lump all young families together, or, worse still, we hole up in our single family homes or apartments, and raise our children in isolation instead of forming a supportive community of intergenerational caregivers. Then comes midlife, a time of significant shifts and changes. Perhaps our children grow up and leave home, or our employer replaces us with someone much younger – and cheaper. We may begin to question our place and our value within society, and yet, how many of us have an intergenerational support system to help us through this transition? Finally, if we are lucky enough to live a long life, we find our elderly selves once again grouped together in facilities designed just for us—where we are often isolated and unappreciated. We are left with so many life experiences to share, yet no one to share those lessons with.
I was lucky enough to grow up during a time when many extended families, while they didn’t live under one roof, lived within just a few miles of one another. We spent every holiday together, and often gathered for Sunday dinner. We celebrated each family member’s milestones, and came together to support one another through births and deaths. Yet my generation, once we were grown, ventured further from home for college or jobs than did the generations before us, and how we lived our lives changed drastically. My children did not grow up near grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. We no longer have that sense of intergenerational support that I felt as a child and young adult. And I have to say, even though my family was as dysfunctional as the rest, I miss that connection.
While I don’t think we will ever return to the extended family model in this age of globalization, I do think we can discover simple ways to connect the generations. The pilot program that I am participating in is one example. Another local example is the Cyber Seniors program, which connects high school students with seniors who want to learn how to become more proficient with technology. A residential example can be found in the Dutch nursing home that has encouraged college students to move in: “The Humanitas retirement home allows students to live there rent-free, with only one stipulation: they have to spend at least 30 hours a month with the home’s senior citizens. The students cook meals for the elderly patrons and plan activities for them based on their interests. For example, when a number of seniors became curious about graffiti, a student named Jordi took them outside with spray-paint and pieces of cardboard to help them learn more about the art form. Jurrien, another student, gives weekly computer lessons to an 85-year-old resident named Anton Groot Koerkamp” (thehigherlearning.com).
When we take the time to connect intergenerationally, we realize all that we have to learn—from those who are older and those who are younger. We enrich our lives by expanding our relationships. We realize that no matter our age, we have gifts to give one another, and when we engage in generativity—paying it forward to the next generation—we are fostering a sense of optimism about humanity that is desperately needed. In simpler terms, engaging with one another feeds our souls and warms our hearts. Let’s do more of that.