In honor of Healthy Aging Month, we’re featuring a special guest blog from TMH Founder, Paula Resnick, on the power of intergenerational service and exchange, and why the cause of aging awareness is particularly close to her heart.
When I first started the Meeting House, I knew I wanted it to be different, not just another after school program and not just another non-profit organization. Luckily, through my 15 years of board leadership and active volunteering with Dorot -- a New York non-profit organization aimed at alleviating social isolation for the frail elderly by providing intergenerational social experiences -- I’d gained an understanding of necessary ingredients for a truly special and person-focused organization. I remember thinking that if I could create an organization that was “Dorot-y” -- which, to me, meant built and operated with the warmth, care and love that a family could bring, and offering experiential programs that really made a difference in people’s lives -- that would be the definition of success for me.
At a fundamental level, Dorot and The Meeting House do the same thing: they create opportunities for building closer connections between people coming together as individuals. We know that isolation and loneliness are growing health concerns -- more and more people, of all ages, are reporting feeling lonely and depressed, and research suggests social isolation is as bad for your health as obesity or smoking. And while our two organizations focus on people at different stages of life, we are both concerned with reducing social isolation through the model of community, friendship, fun and support. Like The Meeting House, Dorot brings people together around common interests like arts, cooking, technology and social interaction. In doing so, we both encourage friendships and promote improved health of the body, mind, and spirit. Increased joy and self-confidence are just two of the gifts that members of our communities often come away with.
Intergenerational relationships can be healing and transformative on many levels. For this reason, over the past few years I’ve brought Dorot to the Meeting House for special activities with our students. With our aligned values and shared vision, these collaborations have been a natural fit. When Hurricane Sandy happened, Meeting House students assembled emergency hurricane kits for homebound seniors. One year, for Thanksgiving, we designed and wrote greeting cards to send to the Dorot community. Perhaps the most powerful and memorable activity was when a Dorot senior visited the Meeting House. He presented an oral history and the children had the opportunity to ask questions and talk to him over a meal. For this event we also shared with our students some of the interactive tools that Dorot uses to give volunteers a sense of what life is like for seniors. The children had the chance to experience what it’s like to walk with a cane, and even tried on special glasses which simulate what it’s like to have vision impairment. In an experiential way, they gained an understanding of what it might be like to walk in an older person’s shoes as well as a newfound sense of appreciation for some of the challenges that go along with that.
Everyone benefits from connecting with individuals of other generations, and doing so is particularly rich with opportunities for social-emotional learning and development. Research shows that pairing children and older adults in activities can help meet the unique needs of both age groups: older adults seek and need the sense of purpose that can be found in relationships with young people, and children benefit from the counsel and experience they can provide. Interacting with seniors helps children develop their perspective-taking skills, by giving them a window into the experience of another person, in this case someone who is very different than they are. This is also linked to developing a child’s capacity for empathy, which we know is essential to building healthy relationships.
As much as we can, we should expose children to opportunities to meet new people and make new friends, not just others their own age. When children interact with seniors they have the chance to exercise a different set of communication and interpersonal skills. Often seniors have accents from far-away lands or speak much more slowly than children are used to. As such, these interactions provide extra practice in active listening, as children learn to navigate the art of conversing with older men and women who may have alternative communication styles.
Intergenerational service opportunities provide a unique sense of fulfillment, learning, and joy that can’t be found elsewhere. It’s one of the richest exchanges I’ve encountered throughout my life, which is why we will be incorporating these types of activities into the Meeting House programming on a more regular basis starting this year. We are looking forward to welcoming more seniors to share time with the children in our programs, and invite you to consider working with elders as you plan this new school year of activities.