Prepared by Nancy Henkin, PhD, Senior Fellow, and Emily Patrick, Project Manager, Generations United
Major demographic trends, a weakened social compact, and competition for limited resources to meet the growing needs of all age groups are driving a renewed interest in intergenerational practice and policy. With the number of people 60+ expected to equal the number of people under 18 by 2030, and an increased interest in community engagement among Baby Boomers and Millennials, there is enormous potential for engaging diverse age groups in mutually-beneficial experiences that foster social connectedness and address critical societal needs.
Strengthening the Social Compact
Research on Intergenerational Programs
Range of Approaches
Co-locating Intergenerational Services
Grantmaker Support: National Funders
Grantmaker Support: Local Funders
Trending Topics: Intergenerational Community Building
Trending Topics: Multi-generational Places and Spaces
Trending Topics: Combating Ageism and Fostering Generational Empathy
Trending Topics: Strengthening Intergenerational Relations within Diverse Ethnic Communities
Trending Topics: Supporting Grandfamilies
Strengthening the social compact—the implicit obligations we have to each other over time—is an overarching goal of intergenerational practice. The social compact is based on reciprocity and recognizes that people of all generations are bound together. However due to a decreasing dependency ratio (working adults to older adults), a growing racial-generation gap, high divorce rates, geographic mobility, major economic disparities, and the increasing number of multi-generational households, it is under stress. Institutions, housing patterns, advocacy groups, funding streams, and service delivery systems are often age-segregated, making it difficult to find common ground and address issues across the age spectrum. Few incentives exist for organizations serving different populations to work together and/or share resources. Competition for scarce resources and a siloed approach to problem-solving often are barriers to authentic cross-age partnerships and collective action.
Intergenerational programs and practices focus on bringing diverse ages together in purposeful, mutually-beneficial activities that promote greater understanding between generations and contribute to building more cohesive communities. Research suggests that they are effective vehicles for reducing social isolation and depression, enhancing physical and mental well-being, and increasing self-esteem/self-confidence of older adults as well as addressing critical community concerns (Short-DeGraff & Diamond, 1996; Morrow-Howell, 2007; and Fried et al., 2004).
Well-planned intergenerational experiences provide opportunities for older adults to fulfill their need to be generative and fully participate in community life. They also contribute to a sense of social responsibility among young people and raise awareness of issues facing older adults. Mobilizing multiple generations to support each other and collectively address community concerns helps build social capital, address historic community divisions, and support individuals across the life course.
Over the last several decades, work in the intergenerational field has concentrated primarily on programs that utilize the skills and experiences of youth and older adults to address critical community needs (e.g., literacy, health and wellness, family support, environmental concerns, elder/child care, cross-cultural understanding).
Across the country, millions of older adults have served as tutors, mentors, health educators, career counselors, after-school coordinators, and in many other roles designed to improve the well-being of younger generations. Young people have taught technology skills, delivered Meals on Wheels, provided chore services and respite services to elders, captured oral histories, and taught English to immigrant elders. Together they have addressed environmental issues, served as safety patrols in neighborhoods, captured ethnic and cultural traditions through the arts, and conducted health education campaigns.
Though initially focused on engaging non-related older adults and youth, intergenerational practice now also includes supporting caregiving families. According to Generations United, about 7.8 million children are being raised in grandfamilies, households headed by grandparents or other relatives. Although grandparents and other relatives are serving as a safety net and often keeping children out of the formal foster care system, many grandfamilies face obstacles not encountered by biological parents. Kinship support groups, Kinship Navigator Programs, and advocacy efforts have been critical to helping these families succeed. Other examples of ways that intergenerational interventions can build the capacity of families to care for their members include mobilizing college students and/or older adults to provide in-home support to caregiving families, recruiting older adults to support young parents and their children, and activities that strengthen intra-familial bonds within diverse ethnic communities.
In addition to programs, intergenerational shared sites have been created across the country. These include, but are not limited to, co-located adult and child care centers, senior centers within schools, and Head Start programs in nursing homes. By definition, intergenerational shared sites are those in which programs share space and include two or more generations that take part in planned activities and unplanned interaction. Some facilities share administration, staff, equipment, meals, and programs, all of which usually result in operational cost savings, positive outcomes for participants, greater family satisfaction, and higher staff retention.
Intergenerational work has the potential to bring ages, races, and cultures together to support policies and practices that empower all individuals to contribute to their communities and society. It can promote values that foster a sense of interdependence, promote lifelong contribution, and foster recognition of shared fate (Henkin & Kingson, 1999). Although the number and range of activities is growing, there still is a gap between the promise and the practice of intergenerational work.
While support for intergenerational programs and practices is available through a variety of national and local foundations as well as federal agencies, more needs to be done to educate funders about the value of these types of investments. Below are some examples of intergenerational strategies that are funded by grantmaking organizations.
The Retirement Research Foundation is funding Generations United and Leading Age to explore the level and nature of intergenerational practice among senior housing providers; the major challenges and the perceived benefits of this work; promising practices; and opportunities to deepen and broaden the use of intergenerational strategies, particularly within affordable/subsidized housing.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation funds the Easter Seals Intergenerational Center in Silver Spring, MD and the St. Ann’s Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee, WI, both of which provide adult and child care services in a shared location. In addition, the foundation supports a telehealth program in Westchester, NY where trained technology students from Pace University visit nutrition sites and senior apartment buildings to monitor seniors’ vital signs using computers and other equipment.
Deerbrook Charitable Trust is funding the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities to implement Second Acts for Strong Communities, an initiative to help its network of human service organizations leverage the time and expertise of older adults looking to embark on encore careers that positively impact their communities.
Pfizer funds Generations United, The Gerontological Society of America and the American Academy of Pediatrics to create and implement Valuing Vaccinations Across Generations, an awareness campaign that aims to bridge the importance of immunizations within segmented groups into an intergenerational conversation within families and among different generations.
Casey Family Programs provides support for efforts to decrease the number of children and youth entering foster care and encourage placement in kinship care, including supporting the 2017 National GrandRally which will bring hundreds of Grandfamilies to Washington, DC to elevate the need for policies that support kinship families.
In 2015, The Eisner Foundation became the only U.S. foundation to invest exclusively in high- quality intergenerational programs in Los Angeles County. Efforts it supports include:
- University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for three research-based intergenerational programs: Generation Xchange, TimeOut@UCLA and UCLA Alzheimer's and Dementia Care.
- EngAGE for program support to improve the quality of life and learning for more than 750 children and 750 low-income seniors through intergenerational arts education and mentoring collaborations between affordable senior housing developments and schools in Southern California.
- L.A Kitchen, an intergenerational culinary job training organization that empowers emancipated foster youth and older adults transitioning out of incarceration to thrive in careers in the food service industry.
- Encore.org for its Generation to Generation campaign, designed to mobilize one million people over 50 to stand up and show up for kids and help change the national conversation about intergenerational relationships in America. This program also receives support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, and Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.
- Generations United to create an annual signature report on the state of intergenerational unity in the United States.
James R. Thorpe Foundation, a small family foundation in Minneapolis, supports its youth and aging grantees to integrate intergenerational approaches into their organizational missions and operations. The foundation is currently funding Southeast Seniors to deepen its partnership with the University of Minnesota in an effort to increase youth volunteerism and foster meaningful cross-age relationships, and Wellshare International to infuse an intergenerational lens into a tobacco prevention program for members of the Karen community (refugees from Burma).
Friends Foundation for the Aging (funding services for the aging in the mid-Atlantic area; no web site) supports an intergenerational, crafts-based entrepreneurship program at Congreso de Latino Unidos in Philadelphia. It is designed to foster generational empathy/understanding, reduce social isolation, and enhance business skills.
Gary and Mary West Foundation is committed to improving the quality of life of low-income older adults and helping urban youth who are not going on to college find employment. The foundation has funded a variety of intergenerational programs, including two in Nebraska that engage youth to do emergency repairs, home modifications, and general maintenance for older adults in the Omaha community. It also supports intergenerational programs in San Diego and partners with San Diego State University to offer intergenerational experiences to its health and gerontology students.
The Bush Foundation in Minnesota awarded a grant to the Northland Foundation to expand its “AGE to age” program to three additional communities in rural northeastern Minnesota. A total of 16 communities are participating in an intergenerational community organizing process to identify activities and projects that connect the generations and benefit the community.
Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Dollar General Foundation, and the Dana Brown Charitable Trust all support OASIS, an organization that offers low-cost lifelong learning, intergenerational tutoring, and health and volunteer programs throughout the St. Louis area.
The May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation are supporting the expansion of Bridge Meadows, an intergenerational community in Portland, Oregon that provides housing for foster and adoptive families alongside seniors. Its new project will house young people aging out of foster care. An additional site is under development in a Portland suburb.
Intergenerational work is about more than services and programs: it is about community change. Community-building approaches that intentionally build upon the strengths of all generations, identify shared interests, and strive for positive outcomes across generational as well as racial/ethnic differences have the potential to encourage different generations to invest in each other. Forming strategic partnerships between aging-focused and youth-focused organizations and promoting the importance of reciprocity and interdependence can result in increased formal and informal support of older adults, their caregivers, and service providers.
Though the number of age-friendly initiatives continues to grow, most are not intentional about gathering data from all ages, seeking to include youth/education organizations and younger residents in planning efforts, or engaging multiple generations in joint advocacy and/or collective action. Lessons learned from the Communities for All Ages initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and local community foundations suggest that using a more inclusive “all ages” lens can increase community support, respect, inclusion, and civic/social participation—all key characteristics of age-friendly communities. In 2012, Generations United and MetLife Foundation created the Best Intergenerational Communities Awards program to heighten awareness of the importance of deliberately mixing ages to build healthy, resilient communities. Over the course of five years, the program identified 24 communities that are actively working to serve, empower, and engage people of all ages. A toolkit to create age-advantaged communities was created by Generations United in 2016.
As the age-friendly movement expands, it is important to critically examine what it will take to create environments that are supportive, engaging, and equitable, not only for older adults but for individuals throughout the life span. Funders can promote cross-age collaborations; encourage the engagement of all age groups in community planning efforts; and support places, programs, and policies that promote intergenerational trust and understanding.
Increasingly, communities are exploring ways to develop settings where people of diverse ages and backgrounds have opportunities to build mutual respect and develop authentic relationships. The development of intergenerational contact zones, or multi-generational places and spaces, requires engaging people from diverse ages and backgrounds in collaborative planning, cross-training staff, and designing physical environments and programming that foster cross-age interaction. Using schools as centers for lifelong learning, converting senior or youth centers into all-ages community centers, designing public parks to support healthy development for all ages, and encouraging libraries to use their spaces and programming to foster intergenerational engagement are all ideas that funders can support in their communities.
Ageism—prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, and policies/practices that perpetuate age-related stereotypes—is one of the greatest barriers to the social compact. Recent studies confirm that ageism negatively impacts all ages and deprives communities of the skills and talents of both young and old. Age-segregation is cited as both a cause and consequence of negative stereotypes and stigma attached to both old age and youth (Hagestad & Uhlenberg, 2005; Vanderbeck, 2007). It is related to loneliness and isolation for older people and decreased protective factors for youth. Robert Butler, who first coined the term “ageism,” suggests that because ageism allows younger generations to see older people as different from themselves, they subtly cease to identify with elders as human beings.
All generations benefit from more age-integrated social structures and reciprocal learning experiences. Increased opportunities for ongoing, meaningful interaction can help foster empathy and dispel myths (Christian, 2014). Enhancing generational empathy is an important step in helping different age groups recognize their shared fate and engage in collective efforts that address inequalities and improve the quality of life for all. When age-related biases are reduced, individuals of all ages have increased opportunities to reach their potential, contribute to society, and participate more fully in community life. Funders can play an important role by supporting efforts to reduce ageism and foster empathy across age, race, and ethnic divides.
Recent research suggests that there is a growing schism between generations in many immigrant and refugee communities. Language barriers and differing expectations, values, and beliefs can lead to feelings of despair among elders who view strong family ties and the success of younger generations as key components of healthy aging. Many elders feel a sense of disappointment that the level of cross-generational interaction within their families is superficial, and they yearn for opportunities to transmit their culture and experiences to younger generations. With the number of foreign-born residents over 65 expected to increase from 2.7 million in 1990 to 16 million by 2050 (Tan, 2011), new strategies for helping immigrant and refugee elders maintain a sense of purpose and share their cultural knowledge are critical.
Relatives have always stepped up to care for children when parents are unable to do so. However, they are now being called upon to do so in unprecedented numbers and with little to no support. The current opioid epidemic is hurting families and crippling the child welfare system in many states. More than one-third of all children placed in foster care because of parental alcohol or drug use are placed with relatives. For every child in foster care with relatives, 20 children are being raised in grandfamilies outside the formal foster care system. Research has proven that children in the care of relatives thrive, yet the families face great obstacles. Programs and policies that support grandfamilies are needed at the local, state, and federal levels.
- Stronger Together: A Call to Innovation for Funders of Children, Youth, Families, and Older Adults. Generations United Discussion Document, October 2008.
- Because We’re Stronger Together. Video published by Generations United, September 7, 2016.
- Creating an Age-Advantaged Community: A Toolkit for Building Intergenerational Communities the Recognize, Engage, and Support All Ages. Generations United, 2016.
- The State of Grandfamilies in America. Annual reports 2014-2016, published by Generations United.
- Connecting Generations, Strengthening Communities: A Toolkit for Intergenerational Program Planners. Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning, 2005.
- Intergenerational Community Building: Resource Guide. Temple University Intergenerational Center. 2012.