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How intergenerational living benefits the ‘book-end’ generations

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New report explores the promise of bringing seniors and children together under the same roof

seniors and kids
The Jenks Public Schools in Jenks, Oklahoma: “Students walk in and start the day with the Grandmas and Grandpas there to give them hugs and high fives”
Courtesy of Generations United

A long-standing example of the benefits of bringing generations together is the Jenks West Elementary School in Jenks, Oklahoma, opened in 1999 and situated in the center of a skilled nursing center. Programs such as Book Buddies, an opportunity for the students to read to seniors, connect the residents, called “grandpas and grandmas,” with the kids, whom the adults nickname “littles.”

“Students walk in and start the day with the Grandmas and Grandpas there to give them hugs and high fives,” principal Suzanne Lair told researchers. “There’s a glass door and glass windows, so it’s very visible for the Grandmas and Grandpas to see what’s going on all the time. They can hear noise and chatter from the classroom.”

By creating a space and programming that allows children and senior to interact, Jenks Elementary blends education and senior services in a way that creates long-lasting impacts. According to a new report, it’s a harbinger of how a new generation of shared spaces can solve significant social challenges as U.S. demographics shift. Our increasing generational diversity should be seen not as a burden, but regarded as a national asset, and fully leveraged.

All in Together: Creating Places Where Young and Old Thrive,” released this week by advocacy group Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, examines the growth in shared sites, defined as facilities, schools, and senior living centers that promote intergenerational activity and bonding, from seniors and college students living in the same housing to preschools attached to retirement communities.

While this type of community center and living arrangement isn’t commonly known, places like Jenks can become huge assets to their communities.

“We have an aging population, and what we can’t afford to do is set them in a Sun City-type arrangement so they’re only sharing their experience and knowledge with other older adults,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United.

Educational programs at the Champion Intergenerational Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Courtesy of Generations United

By helping our seniors, we help ourselves

Demographics in the United States are rapidly shifting towards an aging population, and “All in Together” believes community leaders need to see this shift as an opportunity to innovate. According to recent research from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of Americans over 80 will double, from 6 million to 12 million, in the next two decades. By 2035, one out of three U.S. households will be headed by someone over 65. That’s 79 million Americans, or slightly less than the population of Turkey.

Multigenerational living is much more common in Asia and Europe, underscoring how the modern U.S. lifestyle, and our push toward sprawl, suburbia, single-family homes, and senior-only housing, has created a generational divide.

The recent rise in multigenerational living in the U.S.—60.6 million people, or 19 percent of the U.S. population, lived in multigenerational homes in 2014, according to Pew Research Center Data, a new record—has primarily been fueled by changing economic circumstances and increasing cultural diversity and immigration.

But as D’Vera Cohn, a Pew senior writer, told Curbed, many people who come together by necessity are staying together by choice. There’s an increasing awareness and even embrace of a lifestyle that brings different generations together under the same roof.

A wider number of advocates and architects are embracing this concept for spaces and places outside the family home. Architect Matthew Hollwich, who wrote the book New Aging to advocate for more considered design for old age, has put his ideas into play with projects such as a new community center for the Morningside Retirement & Health Services in New York City, which provides a bright, airy space for activities and socializing.

In a series of polls and surveys of more than 2,000 adults, Generations United and the Eisner Foundation found an interesting dynamic at play. Americans favored the idea of intergenerational living and interactions, but weren’t aware of, or able to access, the spaces, places, and services that offered such services.

Polling found that 94 percent agree older people have skills and talents that can help address children’s needs, and 89 percent believe the inverse, that children can help older adults. More than four in five Americans would prefer sending a senior loved one to a care setting with intergenerational interaction, and 74 percent felt age segregation was harmful. More than 62 percent believe that senior centers and schools should find ways to get children and seniors to interact more.

But just 26 percent of Americans “are aware of places in their community that care for children/youth and older adults together.”

ONEgeneration in Van Nuys, California, where students volunteer for activities with senior residents.
Courtesy of Generations United

Benefits for the bookend generations

It may be assumed that the most important benefit of giving seniors and children more chances to interact is countering social isolation among seniors. It’s certainly viewed so by the senior housing industry, which is beginning to see these kinds of intergenerational programs as selling points.

“When seniors move-in to senior living communities they want diverse social engagement as part of their day-to-day experiences,” said Charlie Severn, vice president of brand marketing with A Place for Mom, a nationwide referral service for senior living. “Intergenerational programming is an ideal way for seniors to continue learning, to be with younger people, and to avoid isolation or depression, which research shows is essential to staying healthy.”

Loneliness is a serious problem. A May study by Cigna found that U.S. adults are reaching “epidemic levels” of loneliness. But senior isolation should be viewed as part of a society-wide problem stretching across age groups. The same Cigna report found that younger generations felt much lonelier than older ones, and a British study from this spring found that the highest proportion of people who felt “always or often lonely” were ages 16 to 24.

In this regard, bringing young and old together helps everyone. Dwayne Clark is the CEO of Aegis Living, a company focused on senior housing. His company’s recent Aegis Gardens development in Newcastle, Washington, features intergenerational programs and will eventually include an attached preschool.

A senior volunteer teaching math at The Rashi School, a private K-8 school in Dedham, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of Generations United

”Sadly, so often people separate the care of elders and small children, when more research shows that both of these so-called ‘book-end’ generations benefit from being together, especially in structured programs,” says Clark. “The smiling faces of children bring vibrancy and fun, which energizes seniors.”

According to Butts, having seniors volunteer and interact with children, whether it’s via childcare, a community center, or within school environment, helps teach children important soft skills. Different activities, such as trips outside or storytelling, often tie back to school curriculum.

Seniors benefit immensely from a sense of connection and purpose. The Cigna study found that people with greater social connections had a 50 percent reduced risk of dying early.

Shared intergenerational spaces also help dispel fears and stereotypes. A recent study of senior housing providers by LeadingAge and Generations United found that many housing providers, who implemented intergenerational programs out of a desire to dispel fears of aging and older adults among young people, “saw intergenerational programming as a way for older adults to gain a greater understanding of the children and young adults in their communities.”

Creating more space for intergenerational living

How can cities, planners, and developers create more of these spaces? Butts believes that on a local level, cities need to think more about investing in assets for all ages. Parks should be designed and built to serve all ages, and zoning codes and policies should be adopted to allow more intergenerational interaction and encourage standards friendly to these kinds of projects.

Butts also advocates a more holistic approach to funding. Since intergenerational shared spaces often blur the lines between housing, childcare, and education, government should recognize that and allow these types of projects to draw from different funding pools, and help them meet the challenges of attracting skilled staff and gaining accreditations to work with multiple age groups. A recent British report, “Mixing Matters”, made the argument that the U.K. should build 500 shared sites by 2022, and Butts believes similar action in the U.S. could help tackle important challenges that will only be exacerbated in the coming decades.

In many ways, the challenge can be seen as bringing together neighbors. And bridging these barriers can do more than just create new connections.

“It really starves our society and our culture, our next generation, if we isolate seniors,” says Butts. “They can and want to continue to contribute.”