Saturday, April 13

Old and young, talking again

On Fridays at 10am, Richard Bement and Zach Ahmed start their weekly video chat. The program that brought them together offers online discussion topics and suggests arts-related activities, but the two largely ignore all of that.

“We just started talking about things that were important to us,” said Ahmed, 19, a medical student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Since the couple met more than a year ago, topics of conversation have included: Pink Floyd, in a long exploration led by Bement, 76, a retired sales manager in Milford Township, Ohio; his religious beliefs (the main conversation partner is an Episcopalian; the youngest is Muslim); his families; changing gender norms; and poetry, including Mr. Ahmed’s own efforts.

“There’s this fallacy that these two generations can’t communicate,” Bement said. “I do not think that’s true”.

“Zach tells me about his organic chemistry class, about being a student in 2024. I give Zach the opportunity to share with me what it’s like to be him and vice versa.”

The University of Miami began Opening Minds through Art, a program designed to foster intergenerational understanding, in 2007 and introduced an online version in 2022. This semester, about 70 couples have enrolled in the video program. Another 73 students participate in OMA-sponsored arts activities with people who have dementia at a nursing home, a senior center and an adult day program.

There are thousands of similar programs, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which promotes such efforts. Intergenerational programs can involve young children in daycare playing with nursing home residents, older adults and elementary school children participating in community gardening, or college students and seniors joining forces against climate change.

“As age segregation has increased in our society, the impetus to try to overcome it has definitely grown,” said Karl Pillemer, a Cornell gerontologist who has led research on intergenerational communication.

Factors such as early retirement, age-segregated housing, and declining membership in traditional churches and social organizations have produced “a decline in opportunities for natural intergenerational interactions,” Dr. Pillemer said.

“There are entire industries where older people are rare,” he added, pointing to advertising, entertainment and technology. “Most networks of people are made up solely of people 10 years older or 10 years younger than them.”

One reason that matters is the documented toll that age discrimination has on the health of older adults. Repeatedly, studies demonstrating the impact of older people’s negative attitudes about aging, many of them led by Yale psychologist Dr. Becca Levy, have found associations between negative attitudes about aging and risks of cardiovascular events such as strokes and heart attacks, and psychiatric illnesses such as depression. and anxiety.

People with positive feelings about age, on the other hand, perform better on memory and hearing tests, have better physical function, and recover more quickly from periods of disability. And they live longer.

Age-differentiating attitudes are formed early in childhood, but they can be changed, Dr. Levy discovered. Intergenerational programs are one way to counteract them.

For example, several OMA studies have shown that after a single semester, participating students had improved general attitudes towards people with dementia and greater comfort with them.

In another study, younger participants developed greater affection, kinship, commitment and enthusiasm towards older people with dementia, compared to students who did not participate. Investigate with medical students who participated in OMA they found similar results.

Additionally, “as we’ve gotten more information about intergenerational programs and enough high-quality studies using comparison groups, the news is getting better,” said Dr. Pillemer, the study’s lead author. a 2019 meta-analysis finding that intergenerational programs significantly reduced age discrimination among younger participants.

TO recent meta-analysis of 23 studies of intergenerational programs from nine countries found other effects including less depression, better physical health and greater “generativity” among older adults. The effects were small but statistically significant.

Generativity refers to the desire to leave a legacy. Dr. Pillemer describes it as “a developmental need experienced by older people, which helps younger generations create a better world that they themselves will not live to see.”

In Rochester, New York, for example, young employees of the Center for Teen Empowerment worked with older members of a community group, Clarissa Street Legacy, produce a film and exhibit documenting a vibrant black community that was nearly destroyed by highway construction decades ago.

The teens “came to our homes with cameras and microphones, asked us questions and listened as we described what Clarissa Street meant to us,” said Kathy Sprague-Dexter, 77, who grew up in the neighborhood and witnessed the displacement. “Our idea was that we won’t be here for long. We need young people to be part of this.”

The documentary has been screened in high schools and colleges across the country; The exhibit, after several weeks in a downtown arts space, will reopen Feb. 21 at the Rochester Public Library.

“I don’t think we could have achieved this without the young people, their ingenuity, their skills and connections,” Ms Sprague-Dexter said. “They carried the load.”

Attempts to close a multigenerational gap are not always successful. Programs come and go. A 2022 Generations United survey found that 40 percent of intergenerational programs that responded had been in operation for a decade or more, but nearly half had just started last year.

“You can’t just put people in the same room and expect something to happen,” said Dr. Shannon Jarrott, a gerontologist and researcher at Ohio State University. The most effective programs provide preparatory training for participants at both ends of the age spectrum, she said, with activities and equipment appropriate for all parties.

They work best with “ongoing pairing,” so that the same two people “have the opportunity to continue building that relationship,” Dr. Jarrott explained. More frequent interactions seem to have greater effects.

“What really works is equal contact,” Dr. Pillemer said. “It’s not just a service project, seen primarily as a young person helping an older person.”

“It has only been about 150 years since people turned to anyone other than the oldest person in a community for advice on how to find a mate or what crops to plant in case of drought,” he added. “It’s a dangerous experiment to have a society where that doesn’t happen.”

Initially, Ahmed thought of the program, suggested by a sociology professor as a way to earn extra college credit, as a kind of favor.

“I signed up expecting to win nothing,” he said. “The idea of ​​older people getting older is quite depressing. “They lose a lot of people in their lives.”

But as conversations with Bement developed, Ahmed realized that the program was helping him, too. “He has lived things that I have read in history books,” Ahmed said of Bement. “It changes the stereotypical and stigmatized view of older people. “They have stories, experiences and more life than I have had.”

The couple is now in their third semester. They met in person once, for dinner. “It was wonderful,” Bement recalled. “My life has improved thanks to this relationship.”

Could you continue next year? “Why not?” Mr. Ahmed said. “I really value this friendship.”

Mr. Bement got two new students to talk to, but said he would always have time for Mr. Ahmed.