13 May 2020

'Growing old and growing young': the importance of intergenerational connections

Growing old and growing young

Children awaken a sense of adventure that adults think has long deserted them. Photo: File.

I’ve been thinking a lot about intergenerational connections, particularly since watching ABC’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds which I thought was a fantastic program and very topical for our time.

Anyone who followed it would have clearly seen the impact the little children had on the senior participants, most of whom had resigned to a life of isolation and dependence. The best part about working in the community sector is that the means are within our grasp to implement programs like this in the ACT.

For a subject area that has only recently been given attention, there is already a growing body of research suggesting a correlation between intergenerational connections and positive ageing, and the importance of positive ageing has never been more prominent than it is now.

The most recent Intergenerational Report, issued by the Australian Government, shows that the population of Australians over-65 is increasing rapidly. This raises serious concerns about older people’s susceptibility to loneliness and social isolation.

The negative societal impacts of loneliness are severe enough to warrant attention by governments. In the UK, the government undertook the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and has committed funds to foster meaningful connections in society.

Studies have shown that loneliness is often linked to early deaths – on a par with smoking or obesity. It is also linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, depression, cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Did you also know that when you feel socially rejected, it triggers a response in our brain similar to one from experiencing physical pain? If nothing else, these facts alone should urge us to take social connections more seriously.

An evolving society brings with it unique challenges. A particularly salient challenge – or perhaps a by-product of a more educated and mobile society – is that it is unusual for people to live, train and stay in the same place throughout their lifetime. Children grow up and move away from their hometowns, and their ageing parents who are comfortable in their surroundings are less inclined to follow them and can be left alone and isolated in their older years.

Our older generation seems determined not to rely on their children or grandchildren to take care of them. Having worked with this age demographic for over 20 years providing community services, I cannot stress how important independence is to general wellbeing and ageing well.

Our Belconnen Community Service (BCS) participants enthusiastically attend our programs because it helps them live their best lives on their terms. They have a sense of control over their decisions, and with that comes a freedom that is difficult to define in words. This is why BCS’s programs are always designed in collaboration with the community; we don’t believe in doing for, we believe in doing with.

But living independently does not mean that social connections need erode. Unfortunately, these connections are harder to come by. There is a strong culture of ageism in Australia; a lack of respect for our elders pervades our younger generation. This isn’t to say they lack depth or emotional maturity, only that the culture and perception of a family unit seems to have changed to a point that vital links between generations are breaking.

Which is why programs that promote intergenerational connections grow in importance each day. In the Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds program, the older adults couldn’t help but break out into big smiles when the four-year-olds came to see them. Adults who were usually confined to their chairs and beds at the start of the program became much more mobile, encouraged by their younger compatriots who gently prodded them along. They even got them to the beach!

Children awaken a sense of adventure that adults think has long deserted them. Their innocence and simplicity connects with any generation, regardless of age. And in turn, the children acquire a greater understanding of older generations, whose experiences are yet to befall them. Intergenerational connections go a long way in fostering a culture of tolerance and understanding that will be passed on to many more generations along the way.

We are very excited about the programs we have planned at BCS for next year that touch on this very subject. The INVOLVE project that is currently being designed includes an intergenerational storytelling component which will see our older participants joining with school children to pass down their stories and experiences, which the children will then interpret in their own fashion and create a storybook as a keepsake for both the seniors and the children.

If you know anyone over-65 who would like to participate in our intergenerational storytelling program, contact BCS on 6264 0200 or email [email protected].

Details of the broader INVOLVE project will be revealed soon.

Jenelle Tinham

Jenelle Tinham

Jenelle Tinham is the Executive Manager – Programs and Services at Belconnen Community Service. She has worked in the community sector for her entire career, having held senior and executive management roles for the past 20 years. Jenelle has extensive experience in the fields of disability, community aged care, mental health and out-of-home-care services.

Original Article published by Belconnen Community Service on The RiotACT.

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