Magazine Feature

"These Guys Are Fun!"

School and community programs foster friendships across the generations

Retired Boeing engineer Wylie Smith guides a 5th grader's hands in the careful process of cutting small planks with a rotary saw.

"That's it, give it a tug," Smith encourages Josh with a slow, patient voice that belies his reddened face and sweat-stained shirt. "I'll be right with you, Heather," he calls to another youngster participating in the after-school program at Hesston Middle School in Hesston, Kan.

A few feet away, Harold Schmidt, 82, a retired farmer, teacher and coach, helps 6th grader Tyrone hammer nails into a wooden birdhouse. Other children flit around the room, sanding, drilling and shaping their creations during the Middle School Intergenerational Project run by a group called the Hesston Area Seniors, Inc.

"The very first time I came here, I thought it would smell like the Villa [a local nursing home]," Josh says, acknowledging the stereotypical image many children have of older persons: that they're slow, sick and -- well, stinky. Instead, Josh discovered that taking part in the enrichment sessions not only beats the alternative -- watching television until his father comes home from work -- but that the older people who run it are "pretty cool" after all.

"These guys are fun," Josh says with a sheepish grin. "They really help you."

A 1995 study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that young children typically perceive older adults as disabled, isolated, ugly and sad, and that these attitudes become more entrenched as children reach the middle grades. Existing right alongside these negative images are the labels older people sometimes apply to youth: immature, lazy, irresponsible and disrespectful.

For his part, Wylie Smith acknowledges that some children can be rowdy, rude and a little reckless around tools. But he also knows from experience that they respond well when adults take time to teach them more appropriate behaviors.

"I'm a firm believer that we've got to work with kids to help them grow up," says Smith, who is 72. "Nowadays, parents' responsibilities are so large they don't have time. Somebody's got to lead these kids. You've got to fill in."

Anthropologists and common wisdom have long recognized the educational and social benefits of close contact between the generations. Recent demographic trends have given the issue a new urgency. The rise of both single-parent and dual-career households is changing the norms of parent-child interaction. And, for many families, relocation often limits children's opportunities to build relationships with grandparents or other older kin.

This age segregation also makes it difficult for families to preserve their common heritage, pass on collected wisdom and share the responsibility of caring for their oldest and youngest members. At the same time, increased longevity -- census figures show that Americans 85 and older comprise the country's fastest-growing age group -- means that older adults' growing demand for medical care and other social services often collides with the youngest citizens' need for better schools, health care and recreation.

Unless these groups find common ground, their competing interests could jeopardize the prospects for both. The nation's schools, as one of the country's largest social institutions, are perhaps the most promising agencies for buffering this clash by connecting youth and older adults.


Needing Each Other

As reported in the Winter 1998-99 issue of Generations, the journal of the American Society on Aging, several studies demonstrate the positive impact of intergenerational relationships on both children and older persons. In one, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner followed 500 Hawaiian children from birth to adulthood and found that the ones who managed to "make it" -- despite growing up in poverty -- "could count on the support of a caring adult other than their parents."

A 10-year study on successful aging by the MacArthur Foundation found that older Americans who stayed productive and maintained strong social networks had the best physical and mental health in later life. The Generations article -- which points out that retirement typically frees up 18 hours a week for men and 24 hours a week for women -- also described how a concentrated effort to involve older adults in the Miami, Fla., public schools smoothed the way for passage of the biggest education bond issue in the community's history.

The success of such programs in closing the generation gap depends on the commitment that participants have for truly meaningful interaction between the two age groups. For example, it's common practice in many schools for teachers to steer service-learning projects toward nursing homes. Students visit a nearby center, take along some homemade greeting cards, play bingo with the residents and, perhaps, sing some songs. The trip promotes friendly interactions and a welcome break from the routine for both groups.

But when the youngsters return to school from such a visit, they often carry with them a distorted view of older Americans -- that they're confused and helpless and that the most important part of their lives is in the past. At the same time, the typical encounter provides little opportunity for older adults to understand what today's children are learning in school -- or why.

"It's like you put a young person and an older person together and something magical will happen that will work, no matter what. That's not true," says Donna Couper, director of national initiatives for the National Academy for Teaching and Learning About Aging. "We take the position that aging has become a multicultural issue because people of different ages have different languages, customs and worldviews."

Textbook publishers don't help much, Couper notes. They rarely include information about biological changes after adolescence, for instance. They don't use multigenerational examples in math problems, represent older performers in music and humanities textbooks or picture elderly people using computer equipment. And in literature for young readers, many authors refer to older persons as feeble or angry individuals who should be pitied or feared by everyone else.

"It's incredibly ageist, and for young people it only increases fears down the road of what will happen to them as they age," Couper says. "We've done so much on other diversity issues, but we're not addressing this."


Count Me In

It would be easy in a town like Hesston, in central Kansas, for residents to delude themselves into thinking they had escaped the problems of modern society. The community of 3,000 has more friends than strangers. The public schools enjoy a reputation for quality, and a Mennonite college ensures a steady population of educated and well-traveled adults. But as Hesston's civic leaders recognize, sometimes the worst problems in a community stem from the limitations imposed from within. Without strong alliances between people of different ages and backgrounds, alienation and apathy can seep in, no matter how small the town.

A few years ago, Evelyn Rouner, a local activist and retired professor of human growth and development, became concerned that many of the town's older adults seemed to be withering from inactivity. She began organizing meetings with educators, government officials, PTA groups and seniors. Soon Rouner had spearheaded a grassroots, intergenerational movement that evolved into the Hesston Area Seniors, who chose as their motto "Unity Through Community."

In addition to running the after-school intergenerational program at Hesston Middle School that includes the woodworking class, the 300-member group -- with Rouner, 78, still playing a pivotal role -- tutors elementary and middle school students in reading and provides traffic guards for the town's three schools. Other achievements include building a $200,000 senior center, hosting a monthly community breakfast and helping teenagers raise $900 for a social club.

"We really want to dispel the notion that old people are closed off from the community," says Carolyn Holmes, the group's president. "We have a lot to offer. We don't want to be boxed up and put on a shelf."

Barbara Randel, principal of Hesston Middle School, is another strong believer that "it takes all of us to make a difference." Three years ago, she started a new venture when she arranged for some of her students to teach parents and senior citizens to use the school's computers. Michael Mercado and Josh Campo, both 8th graders at the time, admit they had reservations when Randel asked them to work with the seniors. Because Michael's grandfather and Josh's mother both had resisted learning about computers, the two boys thought all older people were "afraid" of technology. Instead, they found a group of enthusiastic adults who quickly shattered that stereotype.

"They're fast learners," says Josh, now a sophomore at Hesston High School. "It felt neat. I was the teacher. Usually it's the other way around."


May I Have This Dance?

"You know, you hear all these things about this wild-eyed teenage generation, but when these kids walk in, it's a peaceable kingdom. These young people are fun."

This observation by Sid Sorkin, a retired school administrator in Illinois, reflects the success of a community service project that brought a new definition to "junior-senior prom." Eight years ago, Township High School District 211 in Arlington Heights, Ill., hired Maureen Statland as its intergenerational coordinator for community education and adopted a program she conducted that pairs teenage volunteers with older adults who need minor home repairs. Soon she was involving district students in an intergenerational film festival held in Chicago each spring and working to persuade more teachers to blend age issues into the curriculum.

By all accounts, Statland's most successful initiative has been expanding a senior citizens dance into the intergenerational prom. Before she took over, the students' only involvement was to provide the decorations and entertainment for the seniors' dance. Now the youth and elders participate as both co-planners and dancing partners.

Bryan Kosarek acknowledged being less than enthusiastic the first year one of his friends suggested that he participate in the dance. As an active volunteer in his community, Bryan routinely helped older persons fix up their property, taught them to use computers and visited them in nursing homes. But dancing with septuagenarians?

Despite his misgivings, 18-year-old Bryan decided to attend. And by the end of the evening, he had gained not only a deeper appreciation of older adults but a new level of understanding about his own place in the world.

"I didn't plan it, but I went and I had a blast," he says. "The seniors taught us dances like the jitterbug, the waltz and the swing. And we taught them -- well -- mostly moves. We don't have names for our dances."

The experience so inspired Bryan that he signed up for dance lessons to practice the swing and joined the intergenerational planning committee for the next prom. He also videotaped a series of interviews with his grandparents to preserve his family history.

"To hear their stories and know what they went through makes you look at that generation in a new way," Bryan reflects. "It makes me feel bad that in the next 20 or 30 years that history will be lost. It's an era that I never really knew about. It's like, somehow these seniors just got here. You think they're slow drivers, not about the role they took in changing our society."

On the other side of this win-win partnership, the older adults who've planned and attended the intergenerational proms say they've been enlightened and energized by the high school students. Emily and Joseph Oskin, retired shopkeepers from Elk Grove Village, have no grandchildren of their own. So when Maureen Statland asked them to help plan the prom a few years ago, they decided it was a good way to bring young people into their lives. Joseph, who missed his high school prom because of serving in World War II, was named prom king at the first intergenerational event they attended.

"Each year we keep volunteering because we enjoy it so much," Emily Oskin says. "We hear so much on radio, television and the news about the troubles young people seem to have. You don't hear too much of the good children -- and there are plenty of them, we found out."

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