The Young and the Old

Recently I came across an article about how Norway has opened up some retirement homes to students as residences.  The university students get to live there at a very discounted rate but have to commit 30 hours per month to spending time with or helping the elderly in the home.  Some students teach computer lessons while some do grocery shopping for the residents, and so on.  I thought it was brilliant, and it made me think about the relationship between the young and old more generally.

You see, we didn’t used to be so separate.  For most of human history we have lived in smaller groups where the young and old lived together, and not just in hunter-gatherer societies but families used to take in aging parents and care for them, just as their parents cared for them, until their death.  In many societies, this is still the norm.  Having these inter-generational homes provides an insight into different ways of acting, being, and thinking that our children (and even our own generation of parents) are often lacking.

If I had my way I would change the entire structure of how we organize our public spaces.  Elderly homes would be in the same buildings as schools and libraries instead of isolated away from everyone else.  Children, teens, young adults, adults, and the elderly would co-exist, all reaping the benefits of time spend with individuals who are different from us, and offer us something unique that our peers cannot.  Imagine the joy brought to the elderly who are living alone if they were able to see young children each day come in to school (or avoid it if they wanted, keeping the spaces somewhat apart).  The elderly could talk and teach the children as well and the children can help the elderly with what they need too.  Libraries would be more accessible to everyone if they were all close together, and libraries are one spot that brings everyone together.

However, we don’t live in that world (yet – I have hope) and so we parents and teachers need to try and make that happen on a more regular basis, for ourselves, for the elderly, and for our children.  Sometimes we don’t know how to start though.  I admit I never quite realized the need until I brought my daughter to the homes where my one grandmother lived (she went to a couple based on need) and saw the sheer joy of all the people upon seeing this young, vibrant child running around.  She loved the attention as well so it was a win-win.  But how to fit this into our already over-scheduled, hectic lives?

First, schools should take a part.  After all, what better education is there than learning about our history and different times and customs than from those who were there?  I feel that every school should be paired up with a retirement home and classes visit once a month, or even every two months.  There are enough classes that that could mean a weekly visit for the retirement home and I can imagine that would go a long way towards lifting the spirits of those living there and helping the children see a different perspective.

Second, although time is tight for all of us, one thing families speak a lot about is needing more quality time as a family.  This is one activity that would benefit not just the immediate family but someone else as well.  In fact, if one could get their family visiting a retirement home every other weekend for an afternoon or morning, imagine the things the entire family would learn.  I know in some countries, there are programs that link elderly without family to families without grandparents (either alive or living close) and although I don’t know if there are areas in Canada with this, one can certainly create it oneself by just going on a regular basis to visit the same individuals.

The thing is, us humans are very good at making time for things we value.  The problem is that learning from the elderly and spending time with them often isn’t high on our list of things we value.  Yet it should be.  The more we realize what we can gain from intergenerational contact, the more I hope we see its value to our lives and the lives of our children.

Image via Flickr/Rising Damp

By Tracy Cassels

February 16, 2015