The benefits of intergenerational programming for older adults in long-term care are well documented: Older adults see improved mental and physical health, reduced isolation, and overall well-being as they engage in meaningful relationships and activities with children and youth.
But older adults may benefit in more structural ways as well, particularly, through a reduction in ageism. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold and as a significant percentage of Canada’s population moves into old age, reducing ageism is crucial to prioritizing older adults’ health, safety, and well-being in the coming years.
Discrimination based on a person’s age is perpetuated for a number of reasons. One potential cause is that children and youth are having fewer interactions with older adults than ever before. Studies show that two-income households often live great distances from grandparents, making family connection and caregiving challenging. In these cases, homecare and eventually, long-term care is common, often severing close ties between generations.
A lack of connection between seniors and youth erodes positive views of elders, and increases what one report calls “age-segregated views”, i.e., negative stereotypes about older adults. Research shows that these stereotypes not only reinforce ageism and the oppression of older adults, but actually incite a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby stereotype activation actually causes mental and physical decline.
In describing the first day of an intergenerational program, one service professional notes, “At first the populations just seemed scared of each other, and now that distance is less.” As engaging with elders becomes a “normalized part of their world”, children and youth come to see the inherent value and humanity of older adults.
Each intergenerational program is unique. Some connect older adults with children as young as four or five, others connect them with young adults. Activities range from music and exercise to arts and crafts, music, reading, and more. In a review of 27 sources, ten concluded that these programs changed children’s views on older adults. Children who participated in intergenerational programming demonstrated “significant improvement” in positive descriptions of older adults and a reduction in negative descriptions.
The research demonstrates that intergenerational programming is not just about providing older adults with an improved quality of life and more enjoyable leisure time, they contribute to raising generations of children and youth who value older adults for their lived experience and humanity. Older adulthood is a universal experience, and societal views on ageing will eventually affect us all. Connections between generations have a major impact on the quality of home care, long-term care, and age-friendly communities for everyone.
Maggie Clapperton is a social worker and content creator at Homecare Hub.