How housing that mixes young and old can improve the lives of both

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Research has shown that older and younger adults need each other: mixed-age interactions make older people feel more determined and younger people benefit from the advice and problem-solving skills of their elders. .

“They fit together like pieces of a puzzle,” said Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, a non-profit group dedicated to uniting generations.

But in practice, such proximity can be difficult to achieve. Many young adults flock to cities, while older people often isolate themselves within the walls of communities 55 and over. Some parts of the country are as separated by age as by race, with fewer people having children and a record number of people living alone, 27% of whom are adults over 60.

“The elderly and the young are two of the most lonely groups in society,” Freedman said. “We have to be as creative in bringing them together as we have been in separating them. “

One solution is to establish residential communities designed to maintain these links.

“There is a trend towards intergenerational living,” said Elin Zurbrigg, deputy director of Mi Casa, a Washington, DC nonprofit that provides senior housing through its Genesis program, working with authorities. municipal. Demand may increase due to the pandemic, which has exposed loneliness as a serious health problem and prompted many Americans to make a fresh start. Here, experts and residents alike take a look at how interplay between mixed ages promotes well-being – and how to cultivate those relationships no matter where you live.

How Mixed Age Communities Benefit Residents

They cultivate the goal. Many people prefer to socialize with peers of the same age, but age matters less if individuals share a common goal, said Cornell sociologist and author Karl Pillemer.

A goal shared with the neighbors is what Estelle Winicki, a 78-year-old retiree, has always imagined, but finding it has not been easy. In Boulder, Colorado, she rarely crossed paths with neighbors. The nursing homes looked good, but “everyone is old,” she said.

Five years ago, her therapist suggested Bridge Meadows, which operates two townhouse complexes in Oregon that bring together seniors, former foster children and their adoptive parents. Residents are encouraged to spend time with those of other ages.


Winicki, who now lives in Bridge Meadows in Portland, needs no persuasion. She begins much of her day helping her neighbors’ children get ready for school. “It makes me so happy to see these kids growing up with a solid foundation,” she said. “They know they can count on me and I love to help. “

They provide mental health support. “The first thing you see among all generations [at Bridge Meadows] is the meaning of ‘I belong’ and ‘I count’, ”said Derenda Schubert, founder of Bridge Meadows and clinical psychologist. Such an environment enables mixed-age communities such as Bridge Meadows to provide safety nets that protect the mental health of residents.

Kristina Fleming, 23, suffered from depression before moving to Genesis, a 27-unit apartment building in Washington, DC, where seniors live next to young adults in transition from foster care, some of whom have children of their own. In previous residences, “people didn’t care about my feelings,” said Fleming, who has a 7-year-old. “We were just neighbors. At Genesis, seniors relate to her mental health issues, she said. When she’s feeling down, they ask what’s wrong and she confides in them. “We are all one – of different ages, races, ethnicities. “

Fleming, a college student, is an example of how mixed relationships can boost self-esteem as well. Last year, she taught elderly residents how to use tablets to photograph the community’s garden. Enriching their lives during the pandemic made him feel useful and satisfied.

They offer professional benefits. In other communities, the generational glue is professional. PacArts, a mixed-use building located in the San Pedro neighborhood of Los Angeles, provides affordable housing for artists. Luis Sanchez, a 53-year-old painter, said he could count on his neighbors whether he had health problems – he had two kidney transplants – or his job.

An older neighbor hired him on several occasions to help with large painting projects. “I learned a lot of things,” Sanchez said. “She knows techniques and materials that I would never have used.

Eva Kochikyan is a musicologist and teacher residing at Ace 121, a similar building in Los Angeles County. “It’s a close community because we are all artists,” she said. She grew up in Armenia, where people socialized regardless of their age, but after moving to Los Angeles, she barely saw her neighbors. By moving to Ace 121, the 41-year-old recreated the experience of a large extended family.

“It’s almost like having multiple grandparents,” said Tim Carpenter, CEO of EngAge, a non-profit organization that offers programs for all ages, such as exercise classes, in these buildings.

Kochikyan remembered her 4-year-old wandering around the building’s joint art studio, sitting right next to an accomplished painter in his 70s and picking up a paintbrush. “No conferences, just working together,” she said. “These connections happen naturally.”

They can keep the elderly active. Seniors can move more when inspired by the vigor of youth. “The older people might try to keep up with the younger ones,” said Thomas Cudjoe, professor of geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Kochikyan considered a neighbor to be an “old grandmother” after seeing her frown during a solo workout. Since then, however, the baby boomer has befriended a group of kids who enjoy kicking their yoga ball with her. During these sessions, her intensity increases and her face lights up, Kochikyan said, “as if she was losing 20 years of her age.”

Research suggests that this estimate is not far off. Older adults who spend time with children saw their strength and physical activity increase dramatically in a clinical trial involving volunteers at Baltimore elementary schools, for example.

Intergenerational volunteer work can be a model of civic engagement for young residents while helping the community as a whole.  (Getty Images)


How mixed-age interactions benefit the community as a whole

Intergenerational examples are multiplying and multiplying. But a few communities offer what residents consider the best of both worlds: a life of the same age, as well as interactions with young people away from home. These interactions can also benefit older people and young people. Here are some examples.

They can develop a social purpose through volunteering. In Sun City, a large community of 55+ in Georgetown, Texas, north of Austin, residents run dozens of clubs that volunteer locally with children.

“Sun City is amazing,” said Jenny Phillips, a Georgetown resident, who works for the Sun City Homeowners Association and sees its residents as role models of civic engagement for her two children. She describes the sea of ​​gray hair that cheers Georgetown High School sports teams and how “they’re cleaning up a parking lot after a community-wide garage sale to raise scholarships for underprivileged children.”

The Sun City example shows that retirement communities like Bridge Meadows and Genesis can unite generations through a social purpose. Older people, especially retirees, often have time to develop meaningful relationships. “They won’t form if you’re in a rush,” said Freedman, author of “How to Live Forever”. “It’s like making a soufflé. If you rush, it collapses.

Some seniors prefer the way Sun City draws boundaries around mixed-age socialization, so teens don’t blow up music on the side. “In facilitating these connections,” Cudjoe said, “we need to be sensitive to concerns that young people can be disruptive. “

They can help young people learn and older people keep their brains sharp. Experience Corps, co-founded by Freedman and now managed by AARP, offers another form of interaction for all ages: Seniors teaching children to read. In a study of adult participants, scans showed increased brain volume in areas susceptible to dementia.

What to watch out for when mixing generations

Pillemer, the Cornell sociologist, led a Legacy Project for the elderly to share their practical wisdom. One of its programs matches groups of children with an elder with similar experiences, for example as an immigrant. Children design questions, conduct interviews and present what they have learned to the wider community.

Some high schools and retirement homes are adopting this program. But, Pillemer warned, “if you bring older and younger people together without preparation, it can have negative effects.” His research shows that training is essential. For example, older trainees can strengthen their resilience in the face of ageist attitudes.

Portland retiree Winicki agreed training is important. Recently, she promised her 12-year-old neighbor a fun outing if he could explain the high-tech dashboard of her new car. At first he flicked the controls at high speed, expecting her to learn by looking at her. “Kids know systems so well,” she said, “they don’t have to get their hands on technology to understand”. But he was not teaching another child. “Let me do!” she told him. He adapted his style. Then she guided the vehicle to the nearest glacier, where they enjoyed their reward.


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