Jennifer Axelson, LCSW, CCM, MSCC, CLCP
Americans tend to live in silos sorted by age. Young people spend most of their time with other young people or interacting with them on social media, and seniors, similarly, live amongst each other in 55+ communities or facilities, often having little contact with people significantly younger than they are.
A recent study asked Americans over 60 to think about the people with whom they had discussed “important things” over the past six months. Only 25% of the people with whom they had meaningful conversations were under the age of 36; when family members were removed from the mix, that percentage dropped to just six.
Age segregation appears to be a real phenomenon, but is it necessarily a bad thing for age groups, particularly seniors, to live amongst themselves?
The Origins of Age Segregation
There was a time not so long ago when large, extended families lived together and blended generations effortlessly. Children farmed alongside their parents and grandparents, and young people apprenticed with seasoned tradespeople years older than themselves. The generations received their entertainment together at state fairs and other communal locations.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Factory jobs were too dangerous for the young and the old so only those in the middle years occupied those spaces. In healthcare, pediatrics and gerontology emerged. A slow separation of people by age began to occur.
Today, we have generations and micro-generations, such as the Millennials and Generation X and Baby Boomers. Products and communities are niche-marketed to very specific age groups. As a result, we spend most of our time around people our own age, consuming similar products and being very much aware of our generational distinctions.
The Good and the Not-So-Good
It is somewhat natural to gravitate to those with whom we have the most in common. How delightful it might be for a senior to discuss memories of important events and eras in American life with someone else who remembers them just as well. There may be common affection for music from a bygone decade, card games that are barely recognized by younger people, and dance steps that hark back to youthful nights on the town.
There is an undeniable logic to having seniors live together in a community where they can benefit from the economies of shared services and care. In our zeal for efficiency, however, we have inadvertently created a society where generations have less knowledge of, and affection for, each other than perhaps ever before.
Sociologists point to the following negative factors related to age segregation:
Ageism – It’s far easier to develop stereotypic, generalized notions of groups, whether by age, race or religion, when you never meaningfully interact with anyone from that group. This is how young people may come to view seniors as feeble and demented and seniors develop the idea that young people are lazy and entitled, for example. Physical isolation from one another can lead to alienation.
Less Nurturing – Older individuals tend to develop and display nurturing qualities when paired with younger people. This is true even among children of different ages. When we spend time with people our own age, we tend to compete more than we tend to nurture.
Reduced Education Opportunities – Studies show that children who spend more time with adults who are engaged in adult tasks will emulate these tasks (cooking, building things, for example) in play. Modern American children tend to be raised in child-centric family environments where just about every activity and conversation is focused on them. They may lose out on valuable cross-generational education and may not recognize that they, too, have something to contribute. Seniors lose out on the opportunity to share what they have learned through a lifetime of experience, and the sense of purpose they derive from the interaction itself. In a similar vein, seniors can learn from young people when it comes to apps, technology and social media.
Working Against the Tide
Efforts are underway to close the gaps between generations by bringing them together more often. Everyone benefits. Young people can learn from older adults and seniors can remain independent longer with the support and help they receive from younger generations.
Among the ideas and concepts gaining traction are:
- The development of intergenerational villages where multiple generations are deliberately brought together to function as a community and seniors are better equipped to age in place. Aging in place in an isolated suburban home poses multiple challenges and encourages seniors who shouldn’t be driving to cling to the car keys. Developing villages where most needs can be met a short walk from one’s home, and where help can be easily found from younger neighbors, may improve quality of life for all concerned.
- Rebranding “senior centers” as “activity centers” where people of all ages can come together and participate in day trips, book clubs and other activities that are not generation specific. Already, traffic in senior centers is down, likely because Baby Boomers don’t want to be segregated and prefer to volunteer and find other activities in the heart of the community;
- Development of senior communities on or near college campuses. Building assisted living and other senior-focused communities within walking distance of college campuses and encouraging seniors to audit classes alongside students brings the generations together in a purposeful way. Seniors benefit from campus amenities, engage in lifelong learning and feel less isolated. Their young classmates may discover that older people have fine minds and something interesting to say.
- A Dutch nursing home offers free apartments to college students in exchange for 30 hours of their time per month. The students engage in activities alongside residents, celebrate birthdays, and otherwise become members of the community. The students bring the outside world in, and likely benefit from the sense of purpose they gain as they help their older neighbors.
- Multigenerational households are on the rise. Families are making room for the elders of the tribe, and young adults are living with their parents a bit longer than they may have in recent decades.
The trend to bring the generations back together may continue as the high-volume Baby Boom generation ages. The near-simultaneous aging of 76 million people can trigger an elder care crisis or it can work to bring people of all ages into environments where jobs, education and support are the common, shared currencies.
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