By Matt Perry
While today’s youth culture moves at the speed of a Kardashian shopping spree, a growing movement heralds the talents of older adults with creative intergenerational programs blossoming throughout California.
Overthrowing the common stereotypes that “senior citizens” are inactive, dull, curmudgeons, these fertile programs thrust older adults together with children and young adults to provide renewed purpose in environments desperate for mentors and positive role models.
“The purpose is to break down the stereotypes of the aging process,” says Diane Hunter, Intergenerational Coordinator with San Diego County’s Aging and Independence Services.
Spanning adult day care, dance, mentoring, education, and a wide array of other areas, the programs solve a host of social problems by tapping into unused human capital while saving money for cash-strapped local governments.
The University of San Francisco’s Dance Generators is an intergenerational dance troupe featuring members spanning their teens to their eighties – some without any previous dance experience.
In a society “totally obsessed with youth and perfection of the body,” says founder Amie Dowling, the group questions engrained ideas of beauty, art, movement, and “who can dance.”
The group’s floating membership of 15 students and community members performs once a month during the academic year in venues ranging from schools to community centers and at other special events.
Dance Generators comforts Donna Bias with memories of her grandmother, who raised Bias in the Philippines. A 29 year-old student at USF, Bias is beginning her third year with the dance troupe, calling it a stark contrast to the harsh competition of younger dance companies.
“Dance Generators is a lot more dance-based, community-based, and caring for one another,” she says. “They’re like families.”
Indeed, watching a spry young man dance a duet with an older one who could be his grandfather – or perhaps himself in old age – is a moving exploration of time and mortality that could only be done with these two dancers.
Not surprisingly, the program is headquartered at the university’s deparment of performing arts and social change.
“As a department, the mission is to find and teach the way art can promote social change,” says Natalie Greene, the troupe’s director.
While the Bay Area has several other intergenerational programs – wise elders at AgeSong Senior Communities mentor Albany high schoolers, while Stagebridge uses storytelling techniques to “bridge” the “age” divide with young students – the crown jewel and epicenter of California’s intergenerational programs is in San Diego County.
One of just five “America’s Best Intergenerational Communities” chosen by the national organization Generations United, the county of 3 million residents has blazed a trail for progressive programs ever since its Board of Supervisors designated a full-time Intergenerational Coordinator a decade ago.
The Workforce Academy for Youth provides youth departing the foster system with six-month county internships. Now in its 11th session, each of the 25 interns aged 17-22 is paired with an older adult Life Skills Coach, who helps them enhance job skills while cultivating personal and business relationships.
Tina Dyer, a retired attorney, has coached 10 young adults – seven women, three men – and says they typically need help with problem-solving skills ranging from housing to transportation and health.
Dyer is both excited and grateful for the experience.
“You stay connected with a younger generation,” she says. “I’m with a different age group and different age experiences and social milieu. It’s fun to be connected with them.”
San Diego County also holds annual Intergenerational Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, pairing 120 3rd graders from three county elementary schools with older adults.
More like a school carnival than the Olympics, the event includes game stations like football toss and low hurdles, with the two different generations competing against one another.
When competition ends, older adults and third-graders give medals to one another, and the children write about their experiences.
“The way I use to describ (sic) older people was that I though they were boring, grumpy and also mean,” wrote one third-grader after the games. “Know I think of them fun, nice and energetic, smart. Now in my point of view, I think they are all cool and nice to hang around with. See that is why there is a saying never judge a book by it’s cover.”
Besides re-defining the aging process, San Diego County’s Hunter says mentoring is the key to any program’s success.
“If you have an older adult who thinks highly of you, that is powerful in the life of a younger adult and little children,” she says.
In June, 2,000 San Diego residents attended the county’s bi-annual aging summit. Titled “Building a Healthy Community of All Ages,” the event was part of the county’s wide-ranging health initiative “Live Well San Diego!”
San Diego is also heavily targeting childhood obesity, and has created a “Five and Fit” program pairing young children with older adults who guide them towards more exercise and better nutrition.
Further north in Los Angeles county, ONEGeneration holds a full slate of senior enrichment classes in the San Fernando Valley – known popularly as “The Valley” – and hosts several intriguing intergenerational programs.
With both licensed adult day health care and child care facilities on site, ONEGeneration pairs the two generations together in eight activities a day that include gardening, water paint, chair volleyball, cooking, and many other events.
Of the 60 older adults who attend adult day health care daily, about half volunteer with children.
George Suzuki visited several centers for his wife before settling on ONEGeneration, largely because of the children there.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2006, 82 year-old wife Kaoru no longer communicates verbally, but Suzuki notices a vast difference in her attitude when she spends time with the younger generation.
“I noticed that when she has that time she was a happy person in the afternoon,” says Suzuki. The program’s influence carries over to eating out. “She stand up in the middle of the meal and patting the heads of the children. To her, spending time with the children is really joy.”
“We make a lot of muffins because cooking is so relevant,” jokes Judy Hamilton-Cantu, president and CEO of ONEGeneration. “All of our activities are geared toward engagement.”
ONEGeneration also sponsors senior volunteers to work with teenage parents in the Los Angeles school district. The seniors meet once weekly with these young parents – boys and girls – guiding them on proper parenting and student skills.
The teens receive graduation certificates for the eight-week program, which boasts an 80% graduation rate, according to Haminton-Cantu.
When county governments strapped for cash, San Diego County’s Hunter says intergenerational programs are especially helpful.
“Any time you can develop an intergenerational program it’s always a win-win situation because you’re using one dollar and reaching mutliple generations,” she says.
In some cases, bridging generations can affect career choices.
At Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Successful Aging, student teachers 18-25 instruct older adults in physical fitness, nutrition, fall prevention and healthy living.
Co-director Debra Rose says interning at the center often redirects students towards work with the aging – a population devoutly interested in learning about exercise and health.
“They can’t believe the level of motitvation and how hard the older adults are willing to push themselves physically,” says Rose. “And it really turns a lot of our students around as to where to go professionally.”
As with many around the state, Rose sees an important bond developing within these intergenerational programs.
“Just exposing the younger generation to the wisdom and stories that the older adults have is fabulous,” says Rose.