SOS: Combatting Loneliness
Over the past year, the world has experienced a deadly pandemic, one that has taken millions of lives, negatively impacted global economies, and elevated longstanding inequities. Restrictions on physical contact, the closure of many public venues, and fears about the rapid spread of Covid-19 have further exacerbated a loneliness epidemic that has been increasingly impacting individuals of all ages. Elders are isolated in their homes, retirement communities, or long-term care facilities, unable to see their children and grandchildren. Many children and adolescents are in virtual schools, unable to interact in person with their peers. Too many adults are anxious about the future and struggling to make ends meet.
Loneliness is a subjective experience; it is defined as the discrepancy between one’s desired and perceived social relations. Considered a significant public health issue, the harmful effects of loneliness are well-documented (Cacioppo, 2008; Murthy, 2020). Research indicates that loneliness negatively impacts stress hormones, immune functioning, cardiovascular health, and psychological well-being. It can increase the risk of clinical depression, dementia, and premature death (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).
The need for human connection is a biological and social imperative; loneliness is a warning signal to satisfy that need by seeking out other human beings (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008).
As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is important to think about what a post-pandemic world will look like. How will our experience with physical distancing affect age relations- both within families and in communities? What can we do to create opportunities that intentionally foster connection, particularly for vulnerable children and older adults? New models of care that focus on building meaningful relationships, not just providing services are clearly needed as we move forward.
Intergenerational Shared Sites…a Way Forward.
Bringing generations together to increase social connectedness and enhance well-being is a strategy that is receiving increased attention, particularly during these challenging times. A range of powerful interventions has been created around the world to break down age-related silos and stereotypes.
Using an age-integrated rather than age-segregated approach, intergenerational shared sites are designed to strengthen the web of support that is so integral to families and communities. In these facilities, people of different ages come together to learn, play, and grow. Shared sites are more than physical places; they are shared spaces that have collective meaning for participants of different ages. Their relational focus differentiates them from multigenerational sites, which are designed primarily to accommodate the needs and abilities of different age groups but not necessarily promote cross-age interaction.
There are a variety of models for shared sites, involving different age groups and/or specific populations. Currently, the majority of these sites focus on co-locating services/programs for young children and older adults in a variety of settings. Models include:
- Intergenerational community care center
- Child care center housed at a retirement community
- Child care center housed at a nursing home
- Kindergarten classrooms located in a nursing home or assisted living
- Co-located adult and child day-care center
Other models that involve older adults and school-age children, youth or, young adults include:
- Schools and senior housing co-located on the same campus
- Intergenerational centers that serve specific populations (e.g. LGBT, people with special needs)
- Intentional intergenerational communities that address specific issues (e.g. foster care, teen parenting)
- Co-located senior centers and schools or Head Start programs
- Intergenerational co-housing
Whatever the setting or population, intergenerational sites share some common characteristics. They are places where:
- Formal and informal Intergenerational interaction occurs on a regular basis, with relationship-building as a primary focus.
- Programming is age -appropriate and inclusive of various abilities, races/ethnicities, and cultures.
- Space is accessible, safe, welcoming for all ages/abilities, and designed to promote cross-age interaction.
- Partners serving children/youth and older adults work collaboratively to plan and implement quality programming.
- Staff understand the needs and strengths of all age groups, best practices in intergenerational programming, and the value of cross-age connections.
- Interdependence, reciprocity, and inclusion are shared values.
Research indicates that intergenerational shared sites are beneficial to children, older adults, parents and caregivers, staff, sponsoring organizations, and communities.
“We make the Grandmas and Grandpas happy.”
Benefits for Children
Improved self-esteem and self-confidence
Enhanced communication skills (e.g., listening, expressing feelings)
Improved fine and gross motor skills
Increased understanding of older adults and aging
Improved vocabulary and reading
Better eye-hand coordination
Increased ability to cooperate and problem-solve
Increased appreciation of diversity (e.g., age, disability)
Increased knowledge of aging and the life cycle
Increased comfort interacting with older adults
Improved academic skills
“The kids give a real boost to my day. It feels good to teach them things.”
Benefits for Older Adults
Enhanced life satisfaction/well-being
Enhanced problem-solving skills
Increased physical activity
Enhanced communication skills
Increased brain stimulation
Reduced feelings of loneliness
Increased understanding of children and child development
Improved perception of health
Increased comfort with technology
Increased socialization and engagement
“The relationships my daughter makes here are special. She is learning how to care for others and kindness.”
Benefits for Parents/Care Givers
- Increased confidence that the care environment is stimulating and caring
- Satisfaction that their family member is engaged in 1:1 and small group interaction
- Reliable child or older adult care during emergencies
“I love the feel of community and the way we build relationships between children and older adults. This experience has enriched my life.”
Benefits for Staff
- Increased staff retention
- Improved staff morale
- Increased job satisfaction
- On-site child care for employees who need it
“It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our focus, and the end result is a facility that functions better because of the intergenerational aspects.”
Benefits for the Organization
- Increased collaboration across departments or with external partners
- Increased financial stability due to diversification of revenue
- Potential cost-savings through cost-sharing
- Improved quality of care due to reduced adult-child ratio
- Increased visibility in the community
“Our shared site had such a positive impact on neighborhood development and sent a clear message that caring for all ages together makes sense.”
Benefits for the Community
- Increased awareness of the power of intergenerational relationships and the efficacy of shared sites
- Development of new jobs and sources of care for families
- Opportunities for community revitalization, including new public spaces
- Increased empathy and understanding across ages, races, and cultures
It is clear that increased longevity, more dual-earner and single-parent households, and geographic separation will continue to place increasing burdens on the ability of families to care for their older and younger members. Intergenerational shared sites represent an innovative strategy for reducing loneliness, increasing social engagement of older adults, and fostering generational empathy. Interacting with elders can also shape children’s lifelong ideas about aging and older adults. Thoughtfully-planned intergenerational shared sites that address health and safety issues while fostering connection can significantly impact the quality of life for all generations. Hopefully, you will join the growing number of organizations that are embracing intergenerational care as an effective strategy for supporting children and older adults.
About This Toolkit
This toolkit was designed as an online resource for people interested in creating an intergenerational shared site or enhancing services at their current site. It is a living document that will be updated regularly with additional examples of promising practices. The Toolkit represents insights from many practitioners and researchers who generously shared their knowledge and experience with us. Although it focuses primarily on facilities that engage older adults with young children (toddlers through Kindergarten), many of the promising practices and tips are relevant for other populations and settings. Due to the online nature of this Toolkit, it is possible to go directly to the topics that are most important to you. However, the chapters build on each other. If you are thinking about developing a shared site, it is helpful to review all the chapters in order to deepen your understanding of promising practices and challenges.
Each section includes effective practices, challenges, tips from practitioners, examples, and concrete tools that will help you plan and implement a high-quality shared site. The following topics are covered in the Toolkit:
- Section 2: Planning Includes suggestions and tools for forming a planning committee, conducting organizational and community assessments, and making key decisions related to target population, program model, partnerships and site selection. It also will help you develop a Logic Model and make your case.
- Section 3: Designing Includes design principles and considerations, examples of indoor and outdoor spaces, and ways to animate the environment.
- Section 4: Funding Describes keys to successful fundraising, potential sources of funding, and suggestions for starting a capital campaign.
- Section 5: Marketing Highlights initial marketing steps, suggestions for messaging, and effective communication vehicles.
- Section 6: Staffing Includes information on staffing models, challenges, staff training, and best practices in intergenerational programming.
- Section 7: Building Intergenerational Relationships Offers strategies for planning structured intergenerational activities, fostering informal interaction, and preparing older adults and children to engage in mutually beneficial experiences.
- Section 8: Evaluating Provides an overview of different types of evaluation, sample process and outcome tools, and ideas for planning and implementing an evaluation.
- Section 9: Sustaining Explores strategies for developing a plan that will increase the likelihood of long-term sustainability.
- Section 10: Beyond Child Care Identifies other shared-site models that focus on intergenerational living and education.