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Intergenerational connections are part of the answer

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In 21st century Canada, the fact that seniors now outnumber youth under 15 presents new challenges and pressures, but also new opportunities. With many of us living 25 years longer than our grandparents — active, healthy years — we need to re-think and expand the roles for post-retirement adults in our communities. We need to modify our programs, priorities and institutions — not only to provide services for seniors, but also to harness the huge potential they have to offer. In their search for meaning, engagement, opportunities to share expertise or to give back, seniors have a great deal to contribute. The challenge is to create the settings to make it happen.

Part of the answer is intergenerational connections: activities and programs that bring together young and old in collaborative endeavours to help foster resilience, enhance social connection, and build individual and community capacity. 

Some successful examples stand out — such as having a seniors’ home serve as the site of a daycare centre or elementary classroom. In the U.S., Canada and Holland, college students are living in nursing homes with a reduced rent in exchange for providing some hours of service for the residents. In Cleveland, intergenerational housing involves music students living in a retirement home and bringing the joy of their work to the residents. In California, the Intergenerational Collaboration Initiative brings seniors and students together for weekly walks and monthly roundtable discussions, while across the U.S., Generations United works to support grandparents raising children.

Interest is growing, but most of these efforts are still relatively small and exceptional. How can we scale up, nourish and sustain such healthy intergenerational programs? 

One vision for system-wide change is emerging in Quebec, where federal funding for minority language education has allowed the Anglophone school boards to establish a network of more than 50 CLCs or Community Learning Centres. CLCs offer learning and leisure activities to people across the lifespan — mostly after school and evenings — and play a role in community development. But there are currently few opportunities for seniors to connect with, learn from and contribute to student life. If, however, there was a second staff member (in addition to the CLC co-ordinator), suddenly it would be practical to recruit, train and help deploy adult volunteers in the school.

It could start slowly, one day a week with a handful of volunteers and a few teachers open to having another adult in the classroom. They could be guest speakers, readers, mentors and teachers’ helpers. Such contact could then lead to students and seniors collaborating on projects of common interest, such as community gardens, health and fitness campaigns, and environmental efforts. 

The potential is boundless, and the benefits substantial, but it needs the political will and budget to expand the mission of our schools and make “lifelong learning” more than a slogan. Schools are publicly funded institutions serving a very narrow slice of the population, perhaps 200 days a year. Let’s consider making them the heart of community life 300-plus days a year, and an essential contact zone for seniors and youth.

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Don Rosenbaum, M.Ed., is past president of the Association of Family Life Educators of Quebec and a facilitator with the Partnership for School Improvement. In addition to teaching in the private and public sectors of Quebec for over 30 years, Don has contributed to international development work in South Africa and Bhutan. Now retired, he advocates for expanding the mission of schools to serve people across the lifespan, to become “intergenerational community learning centers”.