From Gen Alpha to the Greatest Generation

May 23, 2024, Feature, by Nancy Baum, M.S., CPRP, and Samantha Ochoa, M.A.

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Fostering intergenerational connection as the antidote for social isolation

Social isolation and loneliness have been more prevalent topics of conversation in recent years, especially during and following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There is an opportunity to reflect on the basic human need to connect and how to create connections across generations. The park and recreation field currently provides programming that spans seven generations, ranging from Gen Alpha (2013-2025) to the tail end of the Greatest Generation (1901-1924). These generations encompass a wide range of ages and life stages that park and recreation agencies consider when programming activities and providing resources. However, those aged 50 and older are at the most significant risk of experiencing social isolation and the harmful effects it brings in its wake.

While reflecting upon work with the older adult population, professionals have seen an abundance of resilience, determination and persistence that has shaped how we interact and socialize. In 2017, NRPA’s Healthy Aging in Parks Initiative reported more than 9 in 10 park and recreation agencies provided older adults with recreational opportunities and programming, making them “a leading provider to this integral portion of the community.” Park and recreation professionals persevered through the pandemic to continue providing these opportunities to keep older adults safe, healthy and, most importantly, connected. The opportunities for connectedness that park and recreation professionals offer will continue to increase in demand, as the older adult population of 65 and older is projected to reach approximately 98 million by 2060.

The risk of social isolation and loneliness persists, as the National Institute on Aging warns that humans tend to spend more time alone as they age. Undoubtedly, recreation professionals are working hard to combat the risks associated with social isolation. How does one recognize social isolation and loneliness in people, especially older adults, and what is the antidote? Bridging gaps in programming to allow a wide range of ages to come together and connect can be at the heart of the solution.

Defining the Issue

What exactly is social isolation? The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2023 Advisory defines social isolation as “objectively having few social relationships, social roles, group memberships, and infrequent social interaction.” This reality could be based not only on one’s preferences, but also on outside factors limiting one’s ability to experience social connection frequently. Living alone in a one-person household is an example of social isolation that typically occurs in older adults.

The Administration on Community Living’s Profile of Older Americans: 2017 highlighted that 20 percent of men and 34 percent of women 65 and older were living alone, with a small percentage of 3.1 percent living in institutional settings. The proportions of living alone amplify as age increases to 75 years old — for example, almost 45 percent of women 75 and older live alone. The loss of one’s spouse or partner tends to be a factor as the proportion of older adults living with a partner decreases with age. Factors such as living alone, loss of family or friends, or chronic health issues can contribute to one’s level of social isolation by decreasing one’s ability to socialize and make connections.

It would be remiss to discuss social isolation without mentioning the impact of loneliness. Loneliness is “a subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections, where inadequate refers to the discrepancy or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.” While in a state of loneliness, one experiences a feeling of pain — or “social pain” as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition mentions. Loneliness is not about being alone, but instead longing for a social connection that is not experienced. Can one experience loneliness without social isolation? Yes, and vice versa. While one can live alone and not experience loneliness, another can be surrounded by people and not meet their social needs, thus feeling the pain of loneliness. However, the combination of social isolation and loneliness is widespread, painful and harmful for mental and physical health.

Health Detriments

Research reflects how harmful social isolation and loneliness can be to various age ranges, specifically older adults. Some of the most negative impacts on this population include an increase in disease, rapid decline in mental health, loss of purpose and disconnection from the very things that enhance joy. In his 2023 Advisory, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy mentions the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even more significant than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. Murthy goes on to note that the harmful consequences of a society lacking social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces and civic organizations, where performance, productivity and engagement are diminished.

In addition, the CDC mentions that social isolation in older adults increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent, heart disease by 29 percent and the chance of stroke by 32 percent. These negative health outcomes prompted the launch of the WHO Commission on Social Connection in 2023. “High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” according to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The commission’s focus for 2024 to 2026 will be addressing loneliness as a pressing health threat, promoting social connection as a priority and accelerating the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes. It is not too late to start the necessary steps to alleviate social isolation and loneliness.

Intergenerational Connection

Following the pandemic, older adult recreation centers are seeing a greater increase in participation in social activities, physical activity and more involvement in educational and cultural activities. Some centers are seeing levels of participation that reflect pre-pandemic levels. One caveat to note is that intergenerational programming has helped to bridge a social gap and provide extremely positive benefits to all participants involved. From tutoring students in schools to assisting with job readiness, creating cultural awareness and connection, and, most importantly, finding common ground in personal experiences, intergenerational programs are making headway in communities across the United States.

Why is this intergenerational connection important? It allows older adults to impart wisdom in a way that is meaningful and appropriate to a younger generation. It helps to dispel stereotypes pertaining to ageism — for both the younger and older person — to find relatable similarities and learn from one another in ways that offer a whole new perspective. Creating connections can offer a newfound sense of purpose, and a drive to assist one another, potentially one of the most primal forms of connection.

Rachel Cohen is the executive director of Aging Dynamics and LinkAGES, two agencies that promote thriving, resilient communities through connection. LinkAGES facilitates intergenerational connections in the Denver area by designing, sustaining and supporting high-quality programs to connect generations, decrease ageism and support healthier communities.

Cohen mentions the importance of having intentionality in intergenerational programming, meaning that the basic idea centers around bringing people together through a shared interest. Topics can include art, wellness, movement, nutrition or music. Once this shared interest is identified, the facilitator builds a program around this core theme or interest. Intergenerational programming requires more than just a room to provide the activity. The program has a facilitator who helps to guide and encourage conversation — and thus, the connection — while the activity is happening. This gentle but guided facilitation allows for the magic of intergenerational programming to blossom. Preschoolers through college-age youth can tap into and share personal experiences, and those of an older generation can share in and relate to those experiences. Cohen notes that the key to these connections is that each person brings in some type of relatable experience no matter the age. The vehicle is the program activity, which creates space for the facilitator to pose a question that might foster relatability, and the end goal is connection and understanding one another.

LinkAGES has created toolkits to help foster connection through art and music and by offering additional outreach support to assist under-resourced populations in the community. LinkAGES addresses accessibility and inclusion for spaces and programs. In addition, they offer webinars on age-friendly communities — featuring all different types of programs and efforts in community that can bring generations together.

When asked why creating spaces to enhance connection is so valuable in 2024, Cohen responds by stating, “[S]ensing a disconnect and lack of safe discourse around challenging things happening locally and globally, we have lost that confidence and ability to create a safe speaking environment for each other. We are also trying to define different generations so strictly. Ageism exists and separates communities; we need to come together.”

Cohen goes on to note how positive differences can be made in the communities and neighborhoods where we live. She mentions the places we go can be a great way to start making connections. “Start noticing one another — pick your head up, put [your] phone away and pay attention. Chat and acknowledge each other. Take note in natural gathering places like schools and community centers — invite folks to be involved and included, drop a flyer off, take steps to connect with those folks in the neighborhood that may be at a greater need for inclusion, and welcome them.”

Taking those first steps by making connections in the community can be important. “Don’t let the barriers stop you. Just be open, be curious, think of how to do things differently, build on things that already exist. Simple curiosity is the first step — create an opportunity for openness. It starts building from there.”

Small Steps Toward Large Impact

Park and recreation professionals can pioneer intergenerational programming by creating a bridge to allow connection in new ways that enhance physical and mental health outcomes. As Cohen mentions, take that next step to broaden the barriers and age limitations set on most programming — remnants of our “strict” generational definition. Two older adult recreation centers are continuing to work toward doing just that.

The Ontario Senior Center in Ontario, California, has been a space for intergenerational connection in various ways. One way is through staffing. Most staff running the center are 20 to 30 years younger than the 50 and older population they serve. This age gap gives older adults a daily experience of interacting with younger generations as soon as they walk through the center’s doors. The community takes pride in coming to the center to enjoy the staff’s creative programming, different perspectives and their ability to be a resource, which keeps them connected to the world around them. This interaction promotes the breakdown of ageist biases for staff and participants and is reflected in the center’s programmatic offerings, such as the Active Seniors on the Go program. In this program, instructors use positivity to motivate older adult participants to be mobile, active and social in supporting their health and wellness. The program has challenged preconceived notions both staff and participants had about older adults’ abilities and interests.

In small steps toward intergenerational programming, the Ontario Senior Center has weekly bingo games open to community members ages 21 and older, along with special activities that are open to all ages, such as excursions. These opportunities allow older adults to bring friends or family of various ages, which encourages all to enjoy and learn together. To see generations within one family interact with each other and all the other attendees around them enriches the experiences by simply sharing them.

The Malley Recreation Center in Englewood, Colorado, caters to healthy aging programs for the 50 and older population. For the past 10 years, the Malley Center has been connecting older adults with local fifth graders through a pen pal letter program from September through April each school year. The goal of this program is to assist students in strengthening their writing skills while receiving support from an older adult volunteer in the community. Shelly Fritz-Pelle, recreation supervisor, mentions that their grandparents are raising some of these students, and others may not have any contact with older adults. At the end of the year, all gather for a pizza party to meet their pen pal in person and celebrate a year of connecting through written correspondence. “Some of these friendships that have formed continue to be maintained many years later,” notes Fritz-Pelle.

In addition, the Retirement Support Group at the Malley Center — now known as the “Stayin’ Alive Support Group” — plans to pilot a mentoring program with the local schools. This program will assist students in developing skills to master key concepts. By bringing these generations together, social bonds are created, and stereotypes regarding aging fall away.

Cohen mentions being drawn to intergenerational connection because she had a personal experience with a family member who suffered from social isolation and loneliness. “If we see the people around us and we know how to connect, we are going to make more of an effort to be sure those people do not get lost.”

Intergenerational connections will heal the world. What better place to spark this healing than in our community centers, recreation centers, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods and homes?

SEE ALSO: Parks and Recreation: The Secret to a Long, Healthy Life?, Allison Colman, Parks & Recreation, May 2019, Vol. 54, Iss. 5.

Nancy Baum, M.S., CPRP, is Recreation Supervisor at Malley Recreation Center, City of Englewood (Colorado) Parks, Recreation, Library and Golf. Samantha Ochoa, M.A., is Senior Recreation and Community Services Supervisor at Ontario Senior Center, City of Ontario (California) Recreation and Community Services.