The composition of American society is experiencing a major change. AARP estimates that 8,000 baby boomers will be reaching 65 every day for the next 15 years. Society will need to integrate multiple generations working and living together. Now, the stereotype of the nuclear family has changed to the reality of extended families. But, there may be benefits to this new setup, particularly for the older generations, which should be investigated.
Discovering that the literature and field work of intergenerational programs is relatively sparse was Marina Cole, who in 2014 completed a thesis study at New Mexico State University titled The Benefits of Intergenerational Activities for Older Adults: A Systematic Review. In her thesis, Cole cites that the development of intergenerational programs, “across the United States and the world are developing to rekindle an innate but forgotten truth: human beings are ‘intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another’ (Blanchard & Thomas, 2010).”
The review that Cole amassed showed a lack of diverse populations and settings being studied for purposes for intergenerational benefits. She also found that there was much more focus on the younger half of an intergenerational exchange. “Finding work [written] on the benefits for the elders was difficult because so much of research focused on the benefits for the children, adolescence or college students,” said Cole. “As a result, the research in my thesis was more exploratory than explanatory.”
Cole’s last recommendation, along with embracing diverse populations and removing the focus of research solely on the younger cohorts of an intergenerational exchange, was to study specifically the biological benefits, such as positive changes to circulatory, nervous, and muscular systems. While some studies did brief investigations of biological changes, more psychological elements were looked into, such as correlations to self-acceptance, self-esteem, and selfaffirmation to life. There was analysis in the literature of the “older adults’ ability to identify and embrace a deeper understanding of the other generations. (Bradhsaw & Fees, 2003; Dorfman & Underwood, 2006).”
Part of Cole’s motivation for her thesis stemmed from her own diverse past. “I grew up in Hawai’i where intergenerational contact is more commonplace than most places I’ve lived (Oregon, New Mexico and now Colorado)
and intergenerational activities were a way of life,” said Cole. “I still remember having tutus (Hawaii for grandparents) come into our classrooms and teach us at school or there were centers designed specifically to accommodate older adults educating younger children and vice versa. I think intergenerational activities were always important to the communities I grew up with because often times, families did not have the income to hire or depend on outside support to care for the elders or the young children.”
Cole also hoped that her review would be something applicable for real world use. “I seriously hope that it will be used to encourage program directors and activity directors of assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and adult day cares to use more intergenerational activities,” said Cole. “Though not as many older adults live outside their homes as some people may think (I think the number was only five percent), I found out that older adults who reside in assisted living facilities and nursing homes DO benefit from intergenerational programs.”
A local nursing home activity director has found exactly that benefit, using the tools of her generation to try to create intergenerational outreach for her residents. Angelica Vazquez Herrera, activity director at Sagecrest Nursing & Rehabilitation Center of Las Cruces, reached out to the community by leaving a post on Facebook to see if there would be any interested in volunteers.“What these people are craving is one-on-one interaction,” said Herrera.
Sagecrest currently has 100 residents and Herrera stressed that time for stimulating nightly activity for residents would be helped by more people volunteering their time. Even brief visits, Herrera has found, do make a huge impact. “We have home-schooled students come in who are between the ages of 7 and 14. They come in once a month to read with the residents,” said Herrera. “The residents love it, especially those who like to read or they used to enjoy reading but they can’t do it anymore.” She says that there are a variety of cognitive levels, but sometimes the interaction can be as simple as telling a bed-bound resident what the weather is like outside.
“Centennial [high school] students came last month and the residents couldn’t stop talking about it, they would say, ‘Look at what they left me’ because they had made ornaments together and the students wrote personalized notes on the back,” said Herrera. “For them it’s very important for someone to acknowledge them.”
Cole feels that the development of the future, in both community infrastructure and societal norms will grow toward an intergenerational model. “I hope, as we move into the future where 20 percent of the population will be over 65, we can consider the benefits of intergenerational activity when we plan and build communities — meaning, I hope there will be a move towards a more integrated society where older adults are not sequestered to retirement communities,” said Cole. “At the very least, I would love to see the research be used to encourage the building of more intergenerational centers. If both young people and older adults benefit from intergenerational activities and programs, why wouldn’t we want more of them?”
If you are interesting in volunteering with Sagecrest, contact the center directly at 522-7000.