July 2019, Volume XXXIII, No 4
AGE to age
ocial connection is a fundamental human need—one that, unfortunately, can become limited as people age. This is especially true for older adults who lose mobility, lack transportation options, or live alone or away from family. The American Medical Association reports that 43 percent of older adult Americans experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Social isolation—the lack of meaningful connections with other people and community—has been linked to a myriad of health risks, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. The good news is that numerous studies demonstrate that social connectedness and community engagement have a positive effect on the cognitive functioning and overall health of older people.
Older adults who remain actively engaged in life and connected to those around them are generally happier, enjoy better physical and mental health, and feel more empowered to cope with change and life transitions. Remaining isolated substantially increases the risk of poor health.
Northeastern Minnesota, like many rural areas across the state, has a growing population of older adults. Over 20 percent the region’s residents are 65 and older, among the highest percentage in the state. Many of them live alone and do not have family nearby. While these older adults may be eager to be engaged in their community, they often lack awareness of how to become connected.
In 2007, the Northland Foundation, a regional foundation serving northeastern Minnesota, conducted a community engagement study of older adults in rural communities and Tribal Nations. The study revealed that older adults were highly concerned about the well-being of youth, but lacked opportunities to interact with young people. Older adults were also concerned with the continuing vitality of their towns.
“In rural areas there are very limited resources and minimal civic engagement opportunities,” said Lynn Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation and director of KIDS PLUS, its children and youth program that includes the intergenerational AGE to age program. Many of these communities lack even a senior center, and young adults often move away for better jobs, leaving grandparents far from their grandchildren.
Based on this regional study, the Northland Foundation launched AGE to age in 2008. The program brings generations together with the goal of helping communities create intentional pathways aimed at actively engaging older adults to help youth and communities thrive. Launched with 10 sites, the program soon expanded to 16 and now is growing to 18 rural communities, including three Tribal Nations. These sites, which range in population from 391 to 16,265 and include many regions experiencing high poverty rates, are implementing locally designed intergenerational programs. The foundation conducted a series of meetings to identify needs and opportunities, engage in intergenerational dialogue, craft a vision, and develop an action plan driven by older adults, youth, and the generations in between.
The program is “filling a great need, especially for older adults, as far as reducing isolation,” said Haglin. “They are connecting with community and connecting with young people. Young people have a vibrancy that is definitely contagious and that helps older adults feel they have purpose and meaning in life.”
Originally designed to link generations and build friendship and community, the program grew into what Haglin described as a “win-win-win.” Older adults share knowledge and skills with the younger generation, provide young people with connections to caring adult role models, and help to make communities even better places for growing up and growing older.
Each of the participating communities plans activities tailored to their unique needs. Older adults teach youth activities such as gardening, woodworking, or Native American language and traditions, including ricing and beading. They also serve as tutors and mentors in enrichment, homework help, and reading programs. Older adults and youth also work together on beautification efforts, including park improvements, flower planting, and cleanups.
Forty-three percent of older adult Americans experience social isolation.
These efforts pay off for all parties:
Benefits to older adults. Older participants report that their primary reasons for getting involved included the opportunity to help their community, share their knowledge and skills, and remain connected to other people and their community. Older adults find an intentional avenue to support the healthy development of children and youth in distinctive ways that did not previously exist in their rural communities. They are empowered to share their stories and draw upon their talents and experience to benefit youth, engage with youth to perform volunteer service and be community leaders, and provide friendship and mentoring to children and youth.
Evaluation findings consistently show improvements in the health and well-being of older adult participants, resulting in increased relationships, a renewed sense of purpose, reduced feelings of isolation, and improved health.
Benefits to youth. The program also helps children and youth thrive. Community leaders report that the program has increased the number of older adults involved in the lives of young people, leveraged significant older adult volunteer support for youth programming, and assisted with reducing age-segregation and apathy between youth and older adults. Young people report that the program has helped them do better in school, feel more connected to their communities, increase their self-confidence, improve their leadership skills, and develop important mentoring relationships with older adult role models.
Benefits to community. The program has also made a positive impact on the participating communities, the environment, and the way of life. On an annual basis, AGE to age engages 9,500 people at participating sites: 4,000 youth, 2,500 older adults, and 3,000 adults ages 19–54. It has spurred hundreds of local partnerships to support intergenerational programming. Annual volunteer service among people of all ages across the participating sites represents over 13,000 hours, valued at nearly $365,000.
Generations United, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC, named the Two Harbors Age to age community as the “Best Intergenerational Community” in the country in 2017. Since 2012, the Two Harbors community has implemented intergenerational efforts that include a Tech and Coffee program, where teens help older adults learn how to use their smart phones and communicate via Skype and email; a community radio station with intergenerational programming; and a service program where young people help older adults maintain their independence by assisting with yard work and other household chores.
Research supports value of intergenerational connections
The Journal of Aging Life Care reports that social isolation and loneliness among older adults represents a significant public health issue. Researchers compared the effects of social isolation on the health of older adults with other health risks that have spurred major public interventions, such as high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity. Despite this documented health impact, limited efforts have been made to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people, especially those from rural communities with limited resources.
An August 2018 article in the National Institutes of Health’s newsletter also reported on the negative impacts of loneliness and isolation on older adults and people of all ages. The article said that volunteering to help others and having a sense of purpose in life can fight the effects of loneliness and support better health.
In their book “Successful Aging,” John W. Rowe, MD, and Robert L. Kahn, PhD, stress the importance of social support networks as an essential ingredient in promoting healthier lives. Minnesota’s own Wilder Research prepared a 2012 report focusing on the importance of social connections on health. The report illustrates how a person’s number of close friends, frequency of interactions with family and friends, trust in neighbors, and level of participation in volunteer activities or community events all play a role in supporting well-being and can also affect health, both directly and indirectly.
Researchers at John Hopkins have studied the benefits of intergenerational engagement on older adults who volunteer for the Baltimore Experience Corps, a national program model that places older adults in public elementary schools to serve as volunteer tutors for at-risk children. Older program volunteers improved their executive functioning, as measured by MRI testing. The program has also demonstrated improved motivation for learning and academic performance among schoolchildren.
Our internal program evaluations demonstrate improved physical and social well-being, decreased isolation, and increased connection to community among older adult participants. Fostering intergenerational connections just makes sense.
Social isolation and loneliness among older adults represents a significant public health issue.
Chandra M. Mehrotra, PhD, is visiting professor of psychology at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. Over the course of his career, his research and service activities have included study of aging, cultural diversity, and program evaluation. He has authored several books related to aging and program evaluation and has served as evaluation consultant for the United Nations Population Fund, several federal agencies, private foundations, and higher education institutions. Mehrotra has been involved in designing and evaluating Northland Foundation’s AGE to age program since its inception.