When old and young talk, both benefit

Gap: Stereotypes disappear and sense of community rises when seniors and teen-agers get to know each other

Life After 50


Michael Atwell and Bill Brockelman are best buds. The next-door neighbors do everything together. They fish. They fix up old rods and reels. They tell stories. They cruise the flea markets. And after Atwell gets out of school, he usually makes a beeline to his Colorado home just to hang out with Brockelman. The two have been friends for four years.

They view their friendship as ordinary. But many people might see it as unusual, because Atwell is 12 and Brockelman is 71. "It's pretty different, for as old as Bill is and as young as Michael is," Michael's mom, Debbie Atwell, says of the friendship. "But I think it's pretty neat."

Academicians and analysts say such intergenerational friendships are not only "neat," they're desperately needed for the good of society.

By fostering more relationships like Michael and Bill's, kids can find mentors and get the one-on-one attention they often lack at home, experts say. Elderly people can find more meaning in their lives and become more connected to their communities. And society itself could benefit from a more unified consciousness. "It's not that [intergenerational] programs are just nice; they really are important," says Nancy Henkin, executive director of the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. "They can really foster a sense of interdependence in communities, and we need people to feel some sort of responsibility for each other."

Gap growing wider

Although there has long been a generation gap, it has been exacerbated by changes in demographics and pop culture that have nearly obliterated the opportunities for generations to mingle.

Tom McBride, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, points the finger at pop culture. It's not that adults and younger adults can't get along, he says. It's more that society doesn't encourage them to interact.

Advertisers split the buying market by age, drawing an imaginary line between 18- to 24-year-olds and those 50 and older. Television shows also segment the generations: Teens watch the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," while their parents catch CBS' "Touched by an Angel."

Such practices have segmented our society in ways never seen before, says McBride. "Instead of one gap, there are lots of little gaps," says McBride. "People who communicate culture today are so much more skilled at targeting different segments of the society."

Job demands and increased mobility also have segmented families and the generations. Brockelman lives near Colorado Springs, Colo., but most of his sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in Maryland.

The generational schism has many consequences, experts say. For one, it tends to isolate many seniors from society. "There are many older people who spend most of their life doing housework and watching TV," Henkin says. "They are mainly people who just aren't connected to the mainstream of society. They are people who struggle to say, `How do I bring meaning to my life?' "

Less contact between old and young also can hurt children, says Sally Newman, director of Generations Together, an international intergenerational studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. Newman points to the increase in social problems, such as violence and drugs, that surround today's youth. She says seniors are an untapped resource that can give children sustained mentoring. "There's a lot of evidence to say that communities that are in disarray may, in fact, be suffering from lack of communication within the communities among the generations," says Newman, who has been studying intergenerational programs for 25 years. "The more we let that happen, the more fractured ... we're going to find ourselves."

McBride also says that when generations don't interact, they can't communicate well or share ideas that could benefit society.

But all hope is not lost. In the past decade, nearly 300 intergenerational programs around the country have popped up to strengthen ties between young and old. The benefits of such programs are huge, say those who've studied them.

From grumpy to sweet

At Temple, Henkin takes a group of teens and seniors on a five-day retreat every year. The first thing that happens is that stereotypes melt away.

That was the case for 150 eighth-graders at East Middle School in Colorado Springs who worked with seniors on a living history project. Before the project, the students described seniors as "mean and bossy."

But after interviewing the seniors, the youths saw things differently. "I used to think they were real grumpy, but I actually learned they were sweet," says Monica Flores, 13. "They deserve respect. They've learned a lot more than anyone of us."

During the project, the students were studying Anne Frank and World War II. They said talks with seniors, many of whom lived through the war, helped them better understand history. "You wish you could be there and see all that stuff," says Michael Davis, 14.

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