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Separating generations a bad idea; When young, old live together, it’s better for society.

Resource type: News

Newsday (New York) |

by Susanne Bleiberg Seperson and Paul Arfin

Susanne Bleiberg Seperson is director of the Center for Intergenerational Policy and Practice at Dowling College. Paul Arfin is president and chief executive of Intergenerational Strategies, a nonprofit charitable organization.

President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recently reminded us that sometimes crises present opportunities to do things that you couldn’t do before. The current financial crisis requires us to do more with less and to work smarter. We propose that working smarter should also be thinking and acting intergenerationally.

That means using our resources in creative ways to meet the needs of several generations simultaneously, rather than delivering services through our usual specialized approaches, which too often isolate generations. This approach does take some rethinking of traditional funding methods, but as we appear to head into a sharp – and perhaps prolonged – recession, we need to find ways to support our citizens more effectively and efficiently, despite expected budget cuts at virtually every level of government.

Since the migration of young families to Levittown during the late 1940s and 1950s, Long Island has developed by segregating generational groups, creating an unnatural environment where the young and older have little to do with one another.

Long Island’s governmental units have designed publicly supported senior citizen housing and civic facilities that separate the generations with little or no opportunity to come together in areas of common interest. Adult day care centers are established separate and apart from child day care centers. Playgrounds are designed for children with little thought as to how they might also benefit older adults.

Many services to seniors are limited to those elderly who are unable to perform activities of daily living by themselves. These programs focus on health and home-care services. Meanwhile, youth programs are sports-oriented or focus on counseling “at-risk” kids. Instead of viewing older and younger people as community assets, they are viewed and treated as societal burdens and isolated from the mainstream.

But there is ample evidence that there are dramatic health and educational benefits when older folks interact with younger people. Numerous research studies report that older adults’ involvement in intergenerational interaction increases self-esteem and satisfaction, as well as promotes new skills and health. Other studies demonstrate significant educational and social gains when older people serve as tutors and mentors to young people.

The studies suggest that the more generations interact, the greater the potential for breaking down existing mutual stereotypes and for changing attitudes and fears associated with being and growing old. Older adults engaged in intergenerational activities also decrease their sense of loneliness, boredom and depression.

Programs in which the older serve the needs of the young and those where the young serve the needs of the older proliferate in other states but are in short supply on Long Island. For instance, older adult volunteers serve in the Experience Corps in more than 20 cities, mentoring thousands of at-risk youth, while young people provide companionship and do chores for thousands of homebound elders in Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, located in nine cities.

One reason for generation-specific funding lays in the way governments support social programs. The focus of this funding is to “treat” and “serve” people, rather than engage them in overcoming the obstacles to their dependency on others.

Another obstacle has to do with the focus of our educational system, which places tremendous pressure on kids to excel academically without also cultivating good citizenship. The price is the virtual absence of time during the school day for community service and interactions with the world outside school. On Long Island, a limited number of wonderful programs, including the Future Corps (a Newsday program) and Nexus, exist and need to be replicated in other school districts.

A principal means of engaging generational groups with one another is through local volunteer programs, such as RSVP and Foster Grandparents, federally funded programs sponsored by the Corporation for National Service. President-elect Obama would do the nation substantial good if he expanded existing volunteer programs and launched new ones that tap into the talents of our younger and older residents. We shouldn’t have to rely solely on private charity to support these kinds of civic engagement activities; they are part of the interdependent social system that forms the bedrock of our democracy.

Governments at all levels should adopt policies that promote more livable communities for all age groups. Obama, evoking President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier speech, has asked Americans to join together in remaking the nation “block by block, brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand.” It’s time we do so intergenerationally.