The University of Washington’s annual Elder Friendly Futures conference takes place this week and I’m speaking on a panel about intergenerational engagement.
Intergenerational engagement is by far the best example of a strengths-based approach to aging that recognizes the enormous resource elders provide to their communities. I’d love to get feedback from our audience on amazing intergenerational programs from around the world that we could highlight during our panel discussion to illustrate this point.
First, here’s what we plan to cover:
My co-panelist is Charlene Boyd, administrator of Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle and one of the original pioneers to help found The Pioneer Network. “The Mount,” as it’s affectionately called, is world-famous for its numerous elder-centered practices and amazing onsite intergenerational learning center.
In particular, The Mount received national attention this summer when the trailer for the upcoming documentary “Present Perfect” about its preschool program was featured on national news:
When you see engagement like this in person or even on the big screen it’s a no-brainer that kids and elders belong together.
I was asked to join the panel to speak about The Eden Alternative and in particular founder Dr. Bill Thomas’ vision of intergenerational engagement. I’m thrilled to sit beside Charlene because her work at The Mount was one of the inspirations for Bill to found The Eden Alternative back in the 1990s when he was a young director of medicine at a small nursing home in upstate New York.
The Eden Alternative is reshaping the experience of aging globally and has trained thousands of people and organizations on the principles of fostering genuine human habitats. Intergenerational engagement is a big part of most Eden organizations and is central to Eden’s core principles:
An Elder-centered community commits to creating a Human Habitat where life revolves around close and continuing contact with plants, animals, and children. It is these relationships that provide the young and old alike with a pathway to a life worth living.
Bill writes about the special relationship between children and elders in his book “What are Old People For: How Elders Will Save the World.” The cliff notes version of his philosophy boils down to the basic psychology of “doing” vs. “being.”
As children we experience the gift of “being” in the moment with ease and can spend hours playing, make-believe and day dreaming.
As we grow older we we experience a profound shift away from “being” and towards “doing.” We take on responsibilities and pursue our desires and ambitions. We are valued by others (and ourselves) according to what we do and have.
Few things bring this into sharper focus than when I’m working on a hard deadline and my children ask me to play a game that requires imagination (like having tea with the stuffies). I will candidly admit that in those instances I suck at playing. Trying to change gears and be present and imaginative can be torturous if not downright impossible.
Bill writes that among the greatest gifts of aging is regaining that ability to “be” present. “Being” opens the door to a special language that elders and children naturally share and that adults are usually too handicapped to understand.
I use imaginative play as an illustrative example but the benefits go much deeper than that. I’m excited to highlight another example of intergenerational engagement that has enormous potential to break down ageist stereotypes and bridge the age gap.
Most readers of ChangingAging are familiar with the film Alive Inside by Michael Rossato-Bennett. The film follows social worker Dan Cohen on his personal crusade to bring music into the lives of people who have been institutionalized and isolated because they live with dementia.
I’m excited to announce that Michael has launched the Alive Inside Foundation to focus on building an intergenerational movement bringing kids and elders living with dementia together around music. Michael has recognized that kids — middle school-age kids in particular — are uniquely positioned to implement music and memory programs in nursing homes and benefit profoundly from the experience. He’s even started filming a new documentary — take a look:
Michael’s foundation has created a middle school curriculum that any school can adopt to partner with a nursing home. What I’m most excited about is how this project illustrates that it is the people living with dementia who have so much to offer these kids. It is truly a life changing experience that changes the way they think about aging.
Besides connecting elders and children in long term care settings I also want to highlight intentional multigenerational communities that are changing aging. The two I’m most familiar with are:
- Bridge Meadows in Portland — a multigenerational community bringing together adoptive parents, foster children and elders.
- Generations of Hope/Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Ill. — a similar program that brings together foster children, retirees, and families by enabling them to create their own neighborhood and forge their own network of caring relationships.
What other programs or innovations should we highlight? I’d especially like to hear from our international audience.