More Health:

February 11, 2022

Intergenerational friendships can help older adults stay energized

These relationships are uncommon outside of families, but they provide a host of benefits to those young and old

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Intergenerational friendships Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Intergenerational relationships, like teaching or volunteering, can contribute to a person's well-being and are aligned with better physical health and cognitive functioning among older adults. They also provide mentors to young people.

 For more than 30 years I've enjoyed teaching as a part-time faculty member, primarily in a graduate program at Rutgers University's Camden Campus. I find great satisfaction in the interaction with the students, and the thought that I'm contributing to their professional development. It keeps me sharp and makes me feel good. It's very rewarding. Turns out, I'm not alone and my feelings are consistent with the response of other 50-plus men.

Intergenerational relationships, like teaching or volunteering, particularly as you age, can contribute to your well-being, and are aligned with better physical health and cognitive functioning. 

Yes, hanging out with young people – children, teens or young adults – is a win-win proposition that accrues benefits to both parties, and represents one way to bring some unity to a society where younger and older generations are often separated in their housing, recreation and social structures.

Such "old-young" connections illustrate the mind-body connections that reinforce the importance of your social and emotional relationships, and demonstrate the value of extending your routines beyond diet and exercise.

The evidence

The University of Illinois reports that when older adults are involved with younger generations, there are benefits to everyone involved. Older adults represent great role models offering perspectives on history, tradition and cultivating problem-solving skills in their younger colleagues. The older partners can learn new skills, and get rejuvenated and energized. Perhaps most importantly, there is the opportunity gain appreciation for the beliefs, values and behaviors held by each generation.

Stanford University says that the interplay of older adults and youth cultivates a sense of purpose, extending benefits both ways. Children receive the mentoring they may lack, especially if they are from vulnerable populations. Older adults can learn about new technology and trends, and the excitement of seeing the world through a younger perspective. According to Stanford professor Laura Carstensen, "older people may be just the resource children need."

And, a McMaster University examination of studies on intergenerational interventions by adults ages 50 and older, and people ages 30 or younger, showed that all of the programs produced positive results. Younger participants exhibited greater self-esteem, better academic performance, and higher motivation to learn. Older adults also had improved self-esteem and cognitive function, along with improved mental and physical health.

With all these benefits, why are intergenerational programs relatively sparse? Is this yet another lost opportunity to promote health and well-being among multiple generations?

The intergenerational gap and the interest to connect

A Harris Poll conducted for Generations United and The Eisner Foundation found that intergenerational friendships are the exception rather than the rule, and that age segregation prevails in the US. Outside of family, 53% of those surveyed said that they rarely spent time with other age groups.

According to the report, the lack of exposure results in ageism and missed opportunities, with 76% of adults believing that ageism is a serious problem. The results prompted the sponsors to call for intergenerational programming nationwide to better connect the generations.

These findings notwithstanding, the poll results also showed a strong interest in making intergenerational connections, with 77% of adults wishing there were more opportunities for intergenerational interactions in their community, 92% of adults believing older adults benefit from such relationships, and 93% thinking that kids gain greatly from adults.

Finding your intergenerational motivation

Where can you find your intergenerational motivation? Marc Freedman is the author of "How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations" and a proponent of generativity, investing in, caring for, and developing the next generation.

The author offers several strategies for older adults looking to find purpose through a connection with younger people. My three favorites include: prepare for a new life stage by embracing your later years and thinking about what matters most, combine purpose and paycheck by finding your own encore career for the greater good, and listen up – young people want mentors who listen more than they talk.

Personal and community contributions

My own lived experience with teaching coupled with the emotional energy I get regularly from my sons and grandson solidify the value of intergenerational relationships for me. Right up to his death in 2017, my dad provided a lifetime of intergenerational benefits which extended to the next level when my two sons came along. The stories we have and the impact he had on my guys are legendary in our family. His legacy continues to provide a positive influence well past his passing.

But there's more to consider because collectively, my story, whether with students or my own family, is one that needs to be extended. Beyond our personal benefits, and the contribution to our individual health and well-being, intergenerational relationships have the ability to impact our communities.

The Legacy Project, an independent research, education and social innovation group, echoes the benefits to older adults espoused by others: active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections consistently report much less depression, better physical health and higher degrees of life satisfaction. They are happier with their lives and exhibit a more hopeful future.

But equally important, Legacy is a proponent of the community benefits of intergenerational connections. By improving the quality of life for all ages, the organization argues, we not only feel closer to each other, but to something bigger, to the past and to the future, to the flow of life. The organization suggests that these relationships teach us how to be human and overcome the separation between young and old that have divided us for decades.

Remaining true to my advocacy for men's health, I offer intergenerational relationships as a tool to motivate a healthy lifestyle. They provide rewards that can fuel the fires of purpose, an important entry in your lifestyle playbook. And maybe, just maybe, if we can get people from multiple generations to begin sharing ideas and experiences, and witness the benefits, we'll begin to break down other barriers that are keeping us apart. Just a thought.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

Follow us

Health Videos