COMM 350

Fostering intergenerational interaction: communication between the old and the young
By: Toby P. Newstead

Our elders are the keepers of our heritage and tradition. And, our children are our future. Not so long ago these two age groups had a special relationship; our elders instructed our children in culture, social acceptances, and wisdom. However, with the recent increase in mobility and the fragmentation of the extended family, there is an ever-increasing communication gap between our elders and our children. Cross-generational interaction within the family is becoming less common. It is becoming more common for the very young and the very old to be cared for outside the home in professional care facilities that further exacerbate the generational communication gap. This paper will demonstrate that the relationships that have been lost due to the fragmentation of our families can be recreated through community programs, school programs, and innovative care facilities, and how carefully fostered cross-generational interpersonal communication benefits both age groups and the community at large.1

FAMILIES ARE CHANGING – OUTLINING THE PROBLEM A multi-generational household offers the opportunity to distribute the care of children among many adults; a live-in grandmother is present to help care for her grandchildren. A multi-generation household also offers the opportunity to distribute the care of aging adults; a live-in adult grandchild is present to help care for his aging grandfather. In the 1920s about 50% of families in the US included at least one extra adult, such as a grandparent, or older aunt or uncle. Today it is estimated that only about 3.5% of families have an extra adult living under the same roof

In referring to “our families” this paper, and the author, refer to western, primarily North American families.



(Powell & Arquitt, 2001, p.421). The changing family composition is resulting in less contact, and less interpersonal communication between our elders and our young children. Our families have become nuclear. Our families have also become mobile. It is now common for the nuclear family to uproot from where previous generations have lived in order to follow careers, opportunity, and adventure across countries and continents. It is less common to live in close proximity to ones extended family (Chamberlain, et a., 1994). This is a striking point, considering that proximity is the single most important factor in determining the depth and positivity of interpersonal relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren (Folwell & Grant, 2006, p. 10). The mobility of our modern families is increasing the communication gap between our elders and our children. Our families move around more than they used to, they also fragment more than they used to. Divorce rates are increasing, and divorce can result in less communication between children and their grandparents (Folwell & Grant, 2006). Divorce can also mean triple duty for single parents. Currently in North America more than half of all mothers work outside the home (Cornille, 2007, p. 631). In addition to holding down a job, it is estimated that the average woman will care for her own children for 17 years, and will care for her parents for 18 years (Chamberlain, et al, 1994, p.194). Not so long ago, before our families moved so often and so far, and before it was so common for our families to disintegrate, elders in the extended family would contribute to the care of young children, and grandchildren would contribute the care of their elderly grandparents. As it is, many of our children and elders now receive the care they need in professional, age specific care facilities, where valuable cross-generation interpersonal communication is absent.

COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE YOUNG AND THE OLD Cross-generational communication is complicated. Kuehne and Collins (1997) identify three main hurtles to interpersonal communication between the very young and the very old. The first is stereotypes and stigmas; negative stereotypes about

Newstead grouchy old people, or delinquent youth often stand in the way of open interpersonal communication between young and old. The second is a difference in interaction patterns. Because youth are often not brought up with elders in proximity they are not used to the way elders tend to interact, and vice versa. A


young person may be comfortable talking while playing a videogame and munching on a snack, but this may come across as rude to the elder with whom the youth is attempting to communicate. The third hurtle to intergenerational interpersonal communication, as identified by Kuehne and Collins, is an unusual power balance. It is inherent in most cultures that elders have a certain power and authority that young children do not. When elders and children that do not have a previous relationship attempt to communicate there is an underlying unbalanced power distribution; the elder has more power than the child, but the extent of the elder’s power, their role as a disciplinarian, for example, is not clearly defined (Kuehne & Collins, 1997). These three hurtles to cross-generational communication require practice to overcome. Only children and elders that communicate across generations often will become comfortable and adept at doing so. The negative stereotypes identified by Kuehne and Collins as the first hurtle to interpersonal communication between the elderly and the young are formed at a very early age (Chamberlain, et al.). But, where interpersonal relationships are fostered between these two age groups, negative stereotypes decrease. The patterns of communication set in the early years of a child’s life will stay with him. If a child is comfortable talking to an older person, he is more likely to talk to older people in the future and to become ever more comfortable doing so. The opposite is also true; if a child is not comfortable talking to an older person, he will usually become less comfortable in cross-generation communication and more likely to avoid such interactions in the future (McCann, et al., 2005). People of differing age groups communicate differently, and “young Americans clearly see three separate age groups, and view them as having different boundaries” (McCann, et al., 2005, p. 304). We are divided into distinct age groups, and communication across these age groups is not easy unless it is practiced, but all too often, cross-generational communication is non-existent. Many children are growing up with minimal exposure to other generations, and many of the older members of our communities are isolated by age as well (Conyers, 1996). This is

Newstead due to the combination of mobility and family fragmentation, and to age-specific care facilities. Childcare programs and centres, senior citizens centres, and youth services – programs designed to provide the care that the extended family no longer can, are age specific, and so cross-generational communication is absent


(Powell & Arquitt, 1978). “Our young and old live in separate worlds” (Chamberlain, et al., 1994, p. 196). Age separation, and the resulting communication gap between our young and our old, has negative consequences. Our elders, holders of our traditions, have little opportunity to pass their wisdom on to our children, our future. Chamberlain, et al., suggest “elders’ decline in life satisfaction and younger people’s increased belief in negative stereotypes about aging seem to be associated with the trend towards age separation” (Chamberlain, et al., 1994, p. 195). The combination of family mobility and family fragmentation has created two things: a need for out-of-home care services, and an exaggerated communication gap between the old and the young. The loss of communication between our elders and our children is detrimental to both age groups and to the community at large.

BENEFITS OF CROSS-GENERATIONAL COMMUNICATION Fostering interpersonal communication between elders and young children can have very positive affects on the children. The more contact children have with older adults the more positive associations children have with the elderly and the better understanding children have of the aging process (Powell & Arquitt, 1978; Chamberlain, et al., 1994). Children that have participated in intergenerational programs tend to score higher in social development – they tend to be more polite and more adept at interpersonal communication than children that do not have any contact with elders (Chaker, 2003). Intergenerational interaction and communication can help children establish healthy styles of communication for school, work, and for life (Kuehne & Collins, 1997). When children interact with elders they gain a heightened appreciation of the past, of cultural traditions and personified history (Chamberlain, et al., 1994).

Newstead When interaction is fostered between children and older adults that are not teachers, or formal caregivers, unique relationships often develop, because the elderly people “tend to exhibit more natural, familial-type behaviours and relate to


children in less formal ways” (Kaplan & Larkin, 2004, p. 157). Interacting with older adults can increase a child’s self-esteem when opportunities arise to be of assistance to the elder, by doing such things as teaching an elder a computer skill (Chamberlain, et al., 1994). Surrounding young kids with positive elders provides children with positive role models (Hopkins, 2001). Children that participate in sustained interpersonal communication with elders benefit socially, communicatively, and emotionally. Intergenerational communication benefits children; it also benefits elders. Many elders are shuffled aside and isolated by their age group. Older people that once led vibrant lives get to a certain age and suddenly no longer have a role, such as a profession, to make them feel important and valued (Conyers, 1996). Our elderly are the most depressed demographic in North America, and their depression often goes undiagnosed. The most effective treatment for depression in elderly people is interpersonal communication; contact with other people (Benek-Higgins, et al, 2008). When elderly people engage in interpersonal communication and relationships with young children they are given a sense of importance; their wisdom and life experience are appreciated and given value. The opportunity to interact with young children can detract from elders’ depression, and sense of being shuffled aside. Young people that have negative stereotypes about the elderly often reverse these negative stereotypes after positive communication experiences (McCann, et al., 2005). While negative stereotypes about the elderly are most common among the young, it is also possible for young children to form positive stereotypes about the elderly. When children have positive stereotypes about elders they are more likely to initiate contact with older adults. By communicating with young people, the elderly are provided with an opportunity to dispel negative stereotypes about their age bracket. When intergenerational interaction and communication is fostered the elderly actively partake in dispelling negative stereotypes and building positive ones, they show a decrease in solitary behaviours and depression, and an increase in participation in social activities (Salari, 2002). Cross-generation interpersonal

Newstead communications, communications that used to take place within the extended family, “give older adults needed feelings of accomplishment, worth, and joy” (Hopkins, 2001, p. 317). The benefits of interpersonal communication across generations as outlined above, translate into the community. Happier elders and more socially conscious children have a positive affect on the community. Through intergenerational interpersonal communication positive stereotypes supplant negative stereotypes. As children that have had extended, interpersonal relationships with elderly people mature they grow to posses a more well rounded understanding of the aging process and place more value on the wisdom and cultural heritage possessed by older community members. By being valued, older community members will feel less shuffled aside. When interpersonal communication is fostered between the old and the young, relationships comparable to those that used to occur within the


extended family are fostered. When we view our community as family we tend to be more conscientious citizens.

INSTANCES OF FOSTERED CROSS-GENERATIONAL COMMUNICATION The community programs and care facilities that do foster intergenerational interpersonal communication “have emerged because human service workers, nurses, activity therapists, educators, community development workers, and others working with children, youth, older adults, and their families have realized the richness of knowledge and experience that can be shared in the interactions and relationships between persons of sometimes vastly different ages” (Kuehne & Collins, 1978, p. 184). Intergenerational programs have been pioneered in schools, nursing homes, universities, detention homes, churches, childcare centres, mixedaged daycare centres, and pre-existing age specific clubs (Chamberlain, et al., 1994). At one school on Staten Island, NY, a pen pal program was set up between a grade two classroom and a senior citizens’ centre. The school children wrote letters to the elders telling them about themselves, and asking questions. The facilitators of the pen pal program were shocked at some of the questions the children asked

Newstead about the seniors: “Do they like spaghetti?” and, “What do they do all day?” (Hopkins, 2001, p. 318). It was obvious to the facilitators that the children thought seniors were “strange, mysterious creatures from another age” (Hopkins, 2001, p. 318). Over the course of the year the seniors and the young students exchanged numerous letters. The letters covered topics such as what the senior used to do for work, what the children were working on in school, and what kinds of foods either party liked (it turns out some elders do like spaghetti!). The letters contained drawings, personal and family stories, and encouragement and support from the seniors. Through this fostered interaction between young and old, the seniors were


given a sense of worth, and the children learned that “the seniors were real people, regular people, just like them – only older” (Hopkins, 2001, p. 318). In Cook County, Illinois, one school founded a “Senior Exchange Program”. Healthy, keen seniors are paid an hourly wage to come into the school and provide services such as computer lab support, reading, writing, and math tutoring, and hot lunch service (Conyers, 1996). The seniors that participate in this program come from backgrounds such as corporate executives, homemakers, and trades people. In addition to providing valuable services, the participating seniors offer children exposure to a living history, and “over the years this program has proven to be a wonderful experience of love, sharing, and compassion for both kids and seniors” (Conyers, 1996, p. 16). The Glenwood, in Bridgewater, Vermont, provides care for both the very young and the very old. The Glenwood is a private care facility that is home to six live-in seniors, and during the day, cares for 14 pre-schoolers. The elders and the young children inhabit the same space during the day, they take their meals together, and they engage in group activities. In time, natural, familial relationships between the old and the young develop (Chamberlain, et al., 1994). The relationships fostered at The Glenwood closely replicate the kinds of relationships that were fostered within the family before the increase in mobility and family fragmentation. Innovative care facilities such as The Glenwood, and school and community programs such as Senior Exchange and pen pals are beginning to address the generational communication gap between our elders and our children. By fostering

Newstead interpersonal communication between the old and the young these community


programs and care facilities are recreating the kinds of relationships that have been lost to the recent changes in our extended families. Interpersonal communication between the very young and the very old has numerous benefits for both age groups. Interpersonal communication between the very young and the very old builds a stronger community. And, interpersonal communication between the very young and the very old ensures the survival of our traditions, culture, and heritage.

Newstead Reference:


Benek-Higgins, M., McReynolds, C., Hogan, E., & Savickas, S. (2008) Depression and the elder person: the enigma of misconceptions, stigma, and treatment. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 30(4), 283-296. Chaker, A. (2003) Putting toddlers in a nursing home; day care programs for young and old grow in popularity, but kids’ germs are a worry. Wall Street Journal, September, D.1 Chamberlain, V., Fetterman, E., & Maher, M. (1994) Innovation in elder and child care: an intergenerational experience. Educational Gerontology, 20(2), 193 – 204. Conyers, J. (1996) Building bridges between generations. Educational Leadership, April,14-16. Cornille, T., Mullis, R., Mullis, A., & Shriner, M. (2005) An examination of childcare teachers in for-profit and non-profit childcare centers. Early Child Development and Care, 176(6), 631-641. Folwell, A., & Grant, J. A. (2006). Adult grandchildren’s accounts of closeness and changes in their grandparent relationships. Journal of the Northwest Communication Association, 35, 1-21 Hopkins, G. (2000) How important are intergenerational programs in today’s schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 82(4), 317-319. Kuehne, V., & Collins, C. (1997) Observational research in intergenerational programming. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28(3), 183-193. Kaplan, M. & Larkin, E. (2004) Launching intergenerational programs in early childhood settings: a comparison of explicit intervention with an emergent approach. Early Childhood Education Journal, 31(3), 157McCann, R., Dailey, R., Giles, H., & Ota, H. (2005) Beliefs about intergenerational communication across the lifespan: middle age and the roles of age stereotyping and respect norms. Communication Studies. 56(4), 293-311. Powell, J. & Arquitt, G. (1978) Getting the generations back together: a rationale for development of community based intergenerational interaction programs. The Family Coordinator, October, 421-426 Salari, S. (2002) Intergenerational partnerships in adult day centres, importance of age-appropriate environments and behaviours. The Gerontologist. (42), 321-333

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