Bringing different generations together for health, well-being and understanding

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many issues to light as we all work hard to stay connected while practicing physical distancing. It’s become clear that many older adults in our communities are socially isolated, and have felt that way since long before the pandemic started.

At the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging (RIA), researchers and project teams have been working on projects and research studies that explore the benefits of connecting older adults with their communities, and particularly, to children and youth. Intergenerational relationships have multiple benefits for everyone involved. Older adults can provide valuable learning opportunities for youth and children, sharing wisdom and possibly guiding youth into careers with a focus on aging. Connections with young people have been found to support health and well-being in older adults. Bringing generations together breaks down barriers and reduces stigmas on both sides of the age gap, leading to more understanding and compassionate communities.

The Curiosity Fair is one of the RIA’s signature events, connecting older adults and young people in a fun environment where learning has no age limit. Held in partnership with The Village at University Gates long-term care home in Waterloo, the annual Curiosity Fair brings together Village residents and students from local elementary schools to showcase science, art and research projects. Participants both young and old are encouraged to ask questions, compare projects and offer each other ideas to build connections and create relationships.  COVID-19 caused the cancellation of this event for 2020, but we are looking at ways to bring curiosity and connections to everyone in physically distanced ways.

RIA researchers are also finding ways to connect the generations. Professor Kate Dupuis, Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging, has been studying the effects of intergenerational connections in long-term care made through music. Intergenerational Jamboree is a weekly music therapy program at The Village of Riverside Glen long-term care home in Guelph. The organizers invite children from the community under the age of four and their caregivers to join residents in making and learning about music. Initial response to the program has been extremely positive. Residents, Village team members and the children’s caregivers all report that they enjoy the program and see positive outcomes including increased good mood after each session.  This research has paused during the pandemic but will be restarted once it is safe to do so.

It’s not just young children that benefit from engaging with older adults. High-school students are learning about career opportunities working with older adults in long-term care through partnerships at the RIA. In 2019 and early 2020, high-school students from the Specialist High-Skills Major programs took part in innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship training days coordinated in partnership with the Ontario Centres for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care at the RIA and Schlegel Villages. Students had the chance to see how long-term care homes operate, took part in experiential learning activities and learned about career opportunities in long-term care. COVID-19 has brought to the forefront that there is a shortage of qualified workers in Ontario’s long-term care sector. By engaging young adults early in their career planning journey, many will find that they can put their skills and abilities into meaningful work with older adults.

To reach older adults living in the Waterloo Region community, the RIA has launched the Supporting Inclusion through Intergenerational Partnerships project (SIIP). SIIP is a community initiative that brings different groups together to find ways to connect secondary and post-secondary aged youth with older adults living with dementia and their care partners to reduce social isolation and highlight career opportunities in healthcare and aging. SIIP will work with and fund community programs that connect older adults living with dementia and young adults to foster a sense of community. The SIIP team is currently working with various community agencies who advise on the planning and execution of the project. These agencies include school boards, dementia advocacy groups, universities and agencies that support older adults.

As we spend more time apart during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all truly understand the need for connection. Creating intergenerational connections can build stronger communities that support older adults and young people alike.  What we are learning is that it’s more difficult, but still possible, to build these important connections in a physically distanced way.

This story originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Embracing Change