Being ignored as an older person is a real thing, Margaret Harty has discovered. At 70, she says she had hoped that it wouldn’t actually happen. But it did. “The idea that as you get older you are marginalized,” she says, “you don’t think that it will happen. But it does—in some respect—happen, where you lose your spot in the community because you’re not contributing.”
Contributing to this phenomenon, most observers would agree, is the fact that society today is not only very youth oriented but also very mobile. “In our culture today you don’t see one another that often and therefore the opportunities to interact with someone who is older than yourself is diminished,” Harty acknowledges.
While this is a dire picture, Harty is doing her part to help reframe it by serving as a volunteer and advisory council member with Bridges Together, a Mass.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to training community leaders to develop intergenerational programs that connect older adults and children.
By training people to create such programs, offering common core-support curricula, and providing how-to guides aimed at helping people integrate “IG” into their households, Bridges Together seeks to ensure that “every child and older adult will experience the richness of intergenerational relationships and interdependence.”
Andrea J. Fonte Weaver, the organization’s founder and executive director, is passionate about the value that intergenerational programs bring to all generations involved. “While we need to change the aging story and disrupt aging with adults, we can actually create a positive story about aging, increase engagement with elders, and prevent ageism through intergenerational programs,” she says, “all the while improving the lives of today’s older adults.”
Indeed, Harty is equally adamant about the benefits of her work with children of all ages. One of her jobs with Bridges Together is working with her local elementary and high schools through the organization’s Bridges Program Curricula Suite. “There’s a curriculum for third and fourth graders, and it’s a six week program,” she explains. “They’re asked to interview a grandparent or other older adults in their lives and we get together and we talk about it. We share lots of things.”
At her local high school, Harty meets with students to discuss many topics, such as fitness, death and dying, health and wellness, and “the things you do as a teenager that might have a lasting impact on yourself.” Take smoking for example: “If I were a smoker and had kept smoking, how would that impact me now?” she says. “I never was and so that was a good choice on my part.” Imparting this type of life experience is a key component of the program.
It’s this kind of sharing and cooperation that is valuable for young children on several levels, Harty explains. “And it’s wonderful to see that an older person can be relevant and give back and assure children that life can go on. I think that talking about these things is so comforting to younger people.”
Another added benefit for Harty is that when she now sees some of the students outside the classroom, in restaurants or public spaces, they acknowledge her and speak to her. “I really love that,” she says.
The Bridges Program Curricula Suite is based on human development theories and best practices from the field; designed to spark meaningful conversation between both groups; and built around theme-based small group work. Although it is typically based in schools and at senior centers, it also runs in libraries, community centers, afterschool programs, and senior housing. Implementing the programs is an intergenerational leadership team comprised of representatives from a youth organization, such as a school, and a senior organization.
Before she graduated high school last month, Emma Cohen had served for a year as co-leader of the Bridges: Lifelong Journeys Club at her school. Cohen has been familiar with the program since elementary school, where she participated as a fourth grader in the Bridges: Growing Together initiative. The experience, she says, has been invaluable. “It’s been such a privilege, and I don’t know if I can get across to Ms. Weaver how thankful I am for it. The meetings we have with older adults give us knowledge and information and so many things. I think it helps strengthen the relationships we have with older adults outside the club, like family members and other people in the community. And the skills we learn in the club are so widely applicable.”
This fall, Cohen is headed off to college, where she has tentative plans to major in English. Whatever she ends up studying, she says, it will likely involve elders and aging in some way. “On so many levels [Bridges] has broadened my horizons. Although I have always interacted well with older adults, I truly didn’t expect it to have such a great impact on my life.”
Cohen’s words will likely give Weaver joy, as her passion for connecting generations is unmistakable. In addition her many years in the field, which includes a master’s degree in intergenerational studies, Weaver has been recognized by multiple organizations for her leadership abilities. What’s next for her? She says she would like to “petition the educational systems to create a ‘longevity competency’ where “the realities of aging as a lifelong process are taught throughout the K-12 school curricula at age-appropriate levels, just as they teach health, math, and reading.”