Intergenerational programs refer to social service programs that provide opportunities for different generations to come together to share experiences, knowledge, and skills that are mutually beneficial and foster positive long-term relationships. These experiences typically involve interactions between the generations at the opposite end of the human life span—the young and the old. Integral to all these programs are interactions that meet the needs of both populations by fostering growth, understanding, and friendship between the generations (Adapted from National Council on Aging 1981).
The notion that a special synergy exists between the young and the old and that caring for each other is natural, appropriate, and timely is fundamental to intergenerational work and has been integrated into social service programs that address a diverse range of issues affecting today's families and communities (Newman et al. 1997). Intergenerational programs involve planned, ongoing interactions that extend over periods of time between nonbiologically linked children, youth, and older adults and engage the generations in activities that benefit both the young and the old. The young participants may be mainstream, at risk, special needs, or the gifted, ranging from infants through college age. Participating older persons include high functioning independent older adults, as well as older persons who are dependent, lower functioning, frail, or at risk.
Intergenerational programs have been evident in the United States since the late 1970s in response to emerging social issues and problems that have affected the quality of relationships between children, youth, older adults, and their families as well as the quality of life within our communities. These issues and problems are a function of some social, demographic, and economic conditions in the United States that have impacted society as a whole, but particularly the two most vulnerable populations—the young and the old. Examples of these conditions include:
- An increase in the number of two working parent or single parent families that are over 70 percent of families with young children (Morrison 1995);
- Nearly 500,000 teenage girls becoming parents each year—roughly 40 percent are below eighteen years of age, three-quarters of whom are unmarried and a majority are poor (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2000);
- An increase in the older adult population, (persons over sixty years of age), which is approximately 15 percent of the total population in the United States, with the most rapidly growing population over eighty-five years of age (Williams 1995); and
- The geographic separation of nuclear families and their grandparents, a condition experienced by between 30 and 40 percent of U.S. families, all of whom live more than 200 miles from their extended family members (Newman 1997).
Researchers and practitioners in child development, education, mental health and gerontology have suggested that there is a relationship between these social conditions and specific problems that are confronting our young and old (Newman et al. 1997). These problems include:
- Isolation, low self-esteem, infrequent and inconsistent familial contact, and feelings of abandonment for older adults;
- Poor school attendance, school drop out, lack of motivation, antisocial behaviors, and disconnection from the family for children and youth; and
- Inadequate care giving, limited support systems, substance abuse, and poverty for both populations.
Intergenerational programs have been developed to bring together a community's young and old and to empower them by combining their assets, skills, interests, and backgrounds to address some of the societal issues that significantly affect their lives.
Intergenerational programs, as a response to social conditions and problems, have been developing in the United States since the 1970s. From their grass roots beginnings and local origins, these programs have expanded into diverse program models that are available across the United States. They are evident in small and large educational and social service systems such as K-12 schools, libraries, child and adult day care, mental health systems, multipurpose community centers, long-term care and residential communities, and institutions of higher education. There are four basic types of program models. These models have a specific structure that enables them to be replicated in a variety of settings and to have similar and measurable successful outcomes. This structure includes several components:
- Partnerships between systems serving children and youth and systems serving older adults;
- A formalized set of goals and objectives;
- Planned program implementation procedures that include orientation and training of the professional staff and participants, and defined intergenerational activities;
- Staff and administrative commitment;
- Support from diverse groups in the community; and
- An ongoing evaluation plan.
The most common intergenerational program model involves older adults providing service to children, youth, and families in the community. Represented in this model are programs in which older adults are:
- Rockers for HIV positive infants in hospital settings (border babies);
- Caregivers for preschool age children in childcare (infants through kindergarten);
- Mentors, tutors, special subject coaches, and resource persons for K-12 students in school or after school programs;
- Special friends to families whose children have disabilities;
- Counselors to pregnant teens or other at-risk youth;
- Cultural support persons for immigrant families; and
- Advisors and mentors to students in higher education.
There are an estimated two million older adults involved in intergenerational programs in which older adults serve children, youth, and families.
The second most frequently reported intergenerational program model involves children and youth serving older adults. Programs representative of this model include:
- Small groups of young children, prekindergarten through grade three, engaging in activities such as arts and crafts, reading and music with frail elderly in long-term care or adult care settings;
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- Groups of school age children in grades four through nine visiting individual or groups of residents in long-term care or personal care environments to talk, or participate in activities such as board games, exercises, music and crafts; and
- Youth from grades ten through twelve, as well as college students, visiting individually with older adults in their own homes or apartments or in their personal care or long-term care environments. During these visits the old and young may talk, write letters, share hobbies or a meal, take walks, shop together, or go on an outing (i.e., to the museum or library).
These visits frequently occur over a period of several years with relationships continuing after students graduate from high school or college. Several hundred thousand children and youth are involved in serving the elderly in their communities.
The third intergenerational model demonstrates partnership activities between a community's children and youth and older adults. Typically, these programs involve groups of youth and older adults who plan and execute activities that benefit the community. Teams of youth and older adults engage in environmental or gardening projects, community fundraising initiatives, collaborative musical or theatrical performances, or discussion groups. The participants in these projects may be members of youth and elder clubs, school classes joining older adult agencies, or young and old individuals from the community who come together to plan a service activity.
The fourth intergenerational model consists of interactions between older adults, children, and youth who share a physical environment and who engage in informal and formal planned or spontaneous interactions. Examples of this model, referred to as shared sites, may be adult and child care in a shared space, long-term care and child care in the same building, a senior center housed at a school, or a multigenerational community center in which interactive intergenerational activities such as computer training, folk dancing, and cooking ethnic foods lend themselves to cross-age scheduling at the site.
Though intergenerational program models differ in size, location and frequency of interactions, and number and ages of participants, they embrace several common characteristics. All intergenerational programs:
- Benefit the younger and older participants;
- Strive to meet specific intergenerational needs of the community;
- Require the commitment and collaboration of multiple agencies;
- Are designed to improve relationships between the community's young and old; and
- Enhance the quality of life in the community and among its families.
An anticipated outcome of intergenerational programs is the creation of new and positive relationships. These relationships evolve over time and are a function of behaviors that occur during intergenerational interactions. The behaviors typically reported in intergenerational interactions are supportive and positive. They are referred to in the literature by a variety of researchers and include: helping, encouraging, agreeing, instructing, giving, showing affection, talking calmly, complimenting, reinforcing, smiling, hugging, being spontaneous, sharing tasks, and building group solidarity (Kuehne 1989; Newman, Morris, and Streetman 1999; Penninx 1996; Larkin and Newman 2001).
Many of these behaviors are fundamental to Erik Erikson's developmental theory that explains a process of interdependence and independence across the life span. In later life this process encourages the purposeful effort to leave a legacy of ideas, skills, and values for one's family, community, and society (Erikson, Erikson, and Kivnick 1986).
Included in the literature about the development, structure, outcomes, and implications of intergenerational programs are references to concepts that have a direct impact on family relationships. Valerie Kuehne (1989) discusses the basic social nature of an intergenerational culture in school classrooms as preparation for a meaningful description of the interactions taking place between group members of vastly different ages (and in different settings). "Groups of adults and children in intergenerational programs may be seen as small societies in which certain behaviors are evident that help to create solidarity and minimize conflict among group members" (Kuehne 1989).
Intergenerational groups involving older adults and youth of all ages may exhibit behaviors, interactions, or relationships that correspond to those found in other familiar social groups (e.g., families and educational institutions) (Hare, Borgatta, and Bales 1955; Kuehne 1989). It is therefore of interest to examine relationships between the behaviors reported in intergenerational programs and those evident in intergenerational familial settings.
Impact on Families
The behaviors that have been demonstrated over time in intergenerational programs have not systematically been examined in the context of family settings. However, there is increasing anecdotal information reported by caregivers, teachers, intergenerational program participants, and families that the behaviors described in intergenerational programs are being observed within the family. This section, therefore, will present some of the observed behaviors of participants within an intergenerational program setting and show how they translate into relationships within the family.
For the young child, prekindergarten through grade three, it has been observed that participation in intergenerational programs often results in an increase in the ability to stay on task, a decrease in anxiety, less crying, more smiling, and overall more relaxed, happy, and cooperative behaviors (Larkin and Newman 2001). Within the family, the young child seems more secure in relationships with older siblings and less fretful in new situations and with new people. The child seems more willing to wait and less prone to moments of "I want and I need now" behaviors. This is perhaps because the child feels more confident that his/her needs will be met.
For the school age child as a result of intergenerational experiences there is an increase in social and academic skills, added competence and self-confidence, and evidence of values that demonstrate caring for others. The impact on family relationships of these experiences for school age children, as reported by parents, includes an increase in cooperation and understanding, a decrease in sibling conflict, more sibling cooperation, and greater willingness to be helpful in household responsibilities. Often, a child with intergenerational experiences is viewed as more accepting and respectful of parents, grandparents, and older generations in the neighborhood.
For teenagers, the intergenerational experience can motivate a willingness to talk with parents about problems, a willingness to be part of the family, and an acceptance of differences in the family and in the community. Additionally, those teens with experience in intergenerational service activities (i.e., visiting with older adults) often develop a sense of social responsibility that converts into a social activism and involvement in community projects. Many youth develop leadership skills that enable them to help solve family problems and assist siblings with difficult personal or academic issues. The intergenerational service experience helps a youth recognize differences and inequities in society that can prompt an acceptance of family differences. Teenagers involved in providing intergenerational community service or in being the recipient of mentoring or tutoring by older adults speak about an increased willingness to communicate with parents and grandparents. These youth refer to increased compassion and understanding of the plight of older generations. "I never realized that Mr. G is a survivor of two wars, the Depression, and the loss of his wife and home. He is amazing and I have tremendous respect for him. I bet there are many other people like him in his generation," states a sixteen-year-old friendly visitor of a ninety-year-old man living at home.
For college youth the intergenerational experience as a mentor or as a service provider to frail or isolated older adults has created a career direction in aging. It often elicits memories of special childhood experiences with elder family members. Triggered by these memories, many youth reconnect with their families' older members and restore the bonds that may have been lost during adolescence.
For the single parent mother whose experience with an older adult may be as a family friend, as a caregiver for her child in childcare, or as a mentor or tutor in school classrooms, there are dramatic stories of a greater ability to cope with family stress, reduced personal anxiety, and more confidence in talking with friends and family rather than paid professionals. These mothers typically refer to the older adult caregiver as a friend who listens to their problems, loves their children, and from whom advice is accepted. Working mothers report increased energy and comfort in knowing that someone acknowledges their plight, encourages them and helps them address some of their social, financial, and family problems. Mothers often refer to the caring and experienced older adult as a friend who helps them enjoy their role as mother. "I now feel confident enough to talk with my son's teacher without feeling defensive and frightened. M., our family friend, has helped me see that my learning impaired child has lots to give," explains the mother of a learning-disabled seven-year-old son.
From the older adults who have been involved in intergenerational experiences as the receiver or provider of intergenerational services we learn of an increased ability to understand and accept the behaviors and motivations of young people in their own families and communities. There is a decrease in their stereotypes about youth and an increase in their awareness of problems confronting the young. Older adults often report on how being aware of the positive effect they have on young people often boosts their own self-esteem and improves their interaction with their own families, especially grandchildren. Many familial interactions for older adults have assumed new meaning as they share some of their intergenerational experiences and insights.
For frail older adults, typically in institutional settings, who are recipients of youth services, there are reduced feelings of isolation, an improvement in activities of daily living, (the ability to care for oneself), and a rebirth of interest in socializing and communicating with family members. The relationship with a visiting young person often ignites their interest in socialization and stimulates cognitive functioning that yields a higher level of communication with their family. "I think I understand my teenage granddaughter better now that K. has become my teenage friend. I am learning a lot about these kids and it is fun," claims an eighty-five-yearold resident in a long-term care residential setting who has a weekly teenage friendly visitor.
International Intergenerational Programming Efforts
The value of intergenerational programs as a forum for social change is being explored as a global phenomenon. In countries around the world there are local and national intergenerational programming initiatives that are being developed to study and address specific social issues. Global intergenerational programs concern education, literacy, housing, and unemployment of the young and old. They address issues of violence, poverty, the environment, and technology in their societies and, in particular, the impact on communities' elderly and younger members. A special focus of international intergenerational initiatives is the revitalization of communities. This focus, evident in countries as varied as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Uganda is frequently related to rebuilding the family. In the Netherlands, intergenerational programs are being developed to solve some of the problems related to the integration of immigrant families into the Dutch culture. In these programs where the grandparents have been left behind, the youth (i.e., Moroccan and Croatian) are linked with older Dutch mentors and tutors. In South Africa and Uganda, in communities where HIV has all but decimated a generation of parents the grandparents, and other older adults collaborate in caring for the communities' children. Informal intergenerational programs are providing supplies and education to these caregivers who are trying to rebuild both the family structure and the sense of community.
Intergenerational programs are evident at different stages of development in countries within Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America (Hatton-Yeo and Ohsako 2000). Fundamental to many of the international intergenerational initiatives are concerns related to the changing families in these countries and the role of children and older adults within the family and within the community at large. Many countries need to share ideas and problems related to the family and seek cross-national solutions.
A growing global interest in intergenerational initiatives has given rise to the creation of the International Consortium for Intergenerational Programmes (ICIP), an organization dedicated to supporting the development of intergenerational programs and practices as agents for social change. ICIP will foster intergenerational approaches to issues of community revitalization, crossgenerational learning, generational cohesiveness, and quality of life for a nation's old and young. This nascent organization hopes to become the vehicle for networking, program development and exchange of information and research to facilitate intergenerational initiatives that meet the social needs of diverse countries across the world.
Conclusive data reporting on the outcomes of intergenerational programs in the context of relationships within families is not yet available. However, a growing body of qualitative and quantitative information on intergenerational interactions between nonbiologically connected older and younger adults reports on universally positive behaviors that are evident in diverse intergenerational programs (Kuehne 1989; Penninx 1996; Larkin and Newman 2001). These behaviors seem also to be manifest in families whose members have experienced ongoing intergenerational interactions. These limited qualitative studies use anecdotal reports, interviews, surveys, and case studies that show the positive relationships being developed through nonbiological interactions in intergenerational programs that can also impact on the quality of relationships in families. With intergenerational programming being developed as a vehicle for positive social change in the larger community it will be important for researchers throughout the world to systematically examine the process for transferability of positive behaviors from formal intergenerational program models to encourage more stable and positive informal family systems.
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