Combating Social Isolation Across Generations
Since 1994, people of all ages, from children and teens to veteran professionals, have contributed their voices to the Good Project’s body of knowledge and experience. I first met Dr. Howard Gardner over dinner at the Aspen Institute, and though I learned who he was only after our conversation, I was deeply impressed by his gentle wisdom and ability to bring out the best in others. This focus on others, rather than one’s own ambitions, reminded me of the elderly whom I volunteer for. After learning about the Good Project, I also found that its promotion of responsibility, community, and empathy resonated with one of my big ideas: intergenerational integration.
“I may forget your name. I may forget what you look like. But I’ll never forget what you mean to me.” This quote from a ninety-year-old woman, whom I’ve visited every weekend through the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB), reminds me of the gravity of not only the neurologic disease itself but also the social isolation associated with it that debilitates millions of people worldwide. Seniors increasingly lack a sense of belonging, are disengaged from others, and have shrinking numbers of fulfilling relationships as they deal with losing loved ones over time. In nursing homes and hospices, the only human touch that many receive is to force them to do something, whether to take a pill, eat their meal, get a shot, or move out of a chair. From personal experiences working in the nursing homes of New Orleans and Boston, I believe that there is a feasible, effective way to improve the quality of life of the ever-expanding elderly population. As dementia and associated issues are increasingly medicalized, I propose that social innovation can build on existing programs by integrating high school youth with the elderly for intergenerational interaction. Specifically, early exposure of high school students to nursing home communities can be a productive solution that mutually benefits both parties. While many college organizations exist to help elderly communities, I believe that young people need to have this kind of experience this earlier.
Intergenerational interaction can address many pressing concerns of the elderly. When I say goodbye to my Alzheimer’s Buddy every week, I have learned to avoid using “have a great week” to wish her well, because she would respond with a despondent sigh. Without a sense of belonging or value from another person, it is not surprising that social isolation has been statistically linked with increased risk for depression, dementia, falls, re-hospitalization, and even all-cause mortality. In the face of these grim consequences, all is not lost. Expedient, cost-effective, and mutually beneficial partnerships between senior care programs and youth organizations present a positive opportunity for preventing social isolation and preparing for America’s “Silver Tsunami.”
In high school, I started Generation to Generations (GEN2GENS, at www.gen2gens.weebly.com), a program that taps into something most people take for granted. Rather than view the growing elderly population as a burden in today’s economy, we view elders as a treasure trove of wisdom that can be passed on to young adults and improve their outcomes. The interaction between older and younger generations not only empowers the elderly to impact youth, but also provides additional opportunities to complete their legacies, and in the process, find renewed purpose. Imagine high school jazz ensembles, cheerleading squads, and chamber musicians going all out, sharing their talents in nursing homes. Now, imagine nursing home residents giving feedback and sharing life stories. Entering its third year in New Orleans, GEN2GENS makes this reality. Once my peers saw how much the elderly loved to see them, they engaged in learning that can’t be replicated in the classroom. The GEN2GENS team at my high school has continued for three years, organizing year-round talent shows, conversational visits, and an annual Generations Festival at several local nursing homes.
Currently, I serve as co-director of two college organizations with similar missions: Harvard-Radcliffe’s Music in Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET, at www.hcs.harvard.edu/mihnuet/), which brings undergraduate performers to nursing homes in Boston every weekend, and the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB, at www.alzbuddies.weebly.com), which matches college students with Alzheimer’s patients at a local hospice on an individual basis for weekly visits. Each organization has its unique strengths. HCAB specializes in matching college students with Alzheimer’s patients at a local hospice on an individual basis for weekly visits. One patient summed up her feelings by telling us, “your smile, the way you talk, having you here is much better than a pill.” As a volunteer, I can testify to the longitudinal relationships that we build between Buddies, the emotional investment both parties make, and the lessons that students learn about dealing with loss. On the other hand, MIHNUET works on a broader scale by bringing undergraduate musicians to more than twelve senior care sites every weekend. A recent post on the MIHNUET blog by a hospital recreational therapist reads, “They brought life to the room and helped our patients and family members relax, forget their surroundings and enjoy an hour of live music. The room was packed and you could hear their voices filling the halls with lyrics to everyone’s favorite songs.” These two programs offer exemplary models for facilitating intergenerational interaction.
By combining both “vertical” integration through the in-depth relationships of HCAB and “horizontal” integration through the breadth of connections of MIHNUET, I envision a “diagonal” model for intergenerational programs that can be implemented by organizations at an earlier age. By tapping into the diversity and flexibility of high school students’ interests and talents, programs for intergenerational integration can both address the immediate needs of America’s elderly and provide youth with personal experiences in service and advocacy, generating awareness of growing concerns in the aging population. Thus, meaningful relationships on a local scale can provide a starting point for national or even global action, providing a solid foundation for elderly care in the future. By taking the time to bridge generations and combat social isolation, anyone can take a step towards a good world, where everyone is connected.