One of the challenges of bringing up children here in the Roaring Fork Valley is the fact that many of us don’t have family members living close by. That makes it difficult and expensive to see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with any regularity, and means that our children don’t have the experience many of us did of having extended family round the corner. For our children — those of us who are ‘transplants’ from elsewhere — grandparents are likely to be something they experience on special occasions and holidays. Extremely important, but perhaps not woven into our lives as they might be, were they to live nearby.
Many of us remember the important support of the extended family and the relationships that flowed from that. Not just for babysitting or help when more hands were needed on deck, but also the profound comfort of intergenerational relationships. We are an aging population, and social isolation and consequent cognitive decline are huge societal problems. There is evidence that our increasingly stratified generations, no longer knit together as profoundly as in the past, give rise to isolation on epidemic proportions, with grave implications for mental health and well-being. And of course, we have seen the challenges for many older adults, particularly those living in care homes and unable to have contact from their families, exacerbated beyond all measure during this terrible pandemic year.
A documentary series made in Australia and the U.K. called “Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds,” brings together a group of preschoolers with the residents of an old age home. If you want to lose yourself down a pleasurable rabbit hole, you can look up clips on YouTube and watch the four year olds breathe fresh life into the older adults. It’s pure joy to see how their interactions and engagement with the little kids transform them emotionally, mentally and physically — and within weeks. The Aspen School District’s wonderful Read With Me program (sadly halted because of the pandemic) achieved something similar: bringing together older adult volunteers with elementary school children on a weekly basis for reading, creating magic for all.
And this is definitely a two-way street. For children who are unable to have regular access to older adults, their experience, perspective and comfort lack an important dimension in life. A 2016 study by the Stanford Center on Longevity called ‘How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future’ explores the benefits that flow to young people from older people involved in their lives, providing mentorship and the transfer of emotional stability and life experience.
Without these close bonds, there is evidence that children can grow up without a sense of the value of the aging population — and this is something we should all worry about. Very recent research has shown that public discourse during the pandemic has tended to devalue older adults and that ageist attitudes can lead some people to think that the pandemic is only an “older person problem.” Think about it: whenever older people are mentioned in the context of COVID, it is almost always as a vulnerable group. While it is true that older age is a risk factor for the more serious implications of the virus, it is not fair to see the elderly as a homogenous group of defenseless people or, worse still, as somehow expendable, or not worthy of concern when they become ill with it or die.
Nor is it fair, or kind, to portray older people — as our youth-obsessed society often does — as foolish or bumbling, the physical signs of aging viewed with distaste and fear. In many cultures, older people occupy an important position and are held in great respect. We can learn a lot from those sweet four year olds, talking to some very old people with clear-eyed unselfconsciousness and without judgment.
It is paradoxical that at a time in our civilization when great old age is ever more desirable and attainable, thanks to modern medicine and a huge array of societal advances, that our generations are apparently so isolated from each other rather than being part of each other’s life furniture. Admittedly, grandparents are as likely to want to be living full and active lives well into their advanced old age as sitting around the kitchen table with their grandchildren, but still, it would be wonderful if our children could know and appreciate older adults — and not just those we are related to — for intergenerational contact to be a constant in their lives and for ageism to be a thing of the past.
Growing Community, by Shirley Ritter, the director of Kids First, and Katherine Sand, the director of Aspen Family Connections, runs every other Wednesday in the Aspen Daily News. It features topics of interest related to early childhood, parenting and education. To reach the authors, email Shirley at firstname.lastname@example.org or Katherine at email@example.com.