Time to bridge the generational divide

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ONE of the best things I ever did was volunteer at a thrift shop for seniors.

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Opinion

ONE of the best things I ever did was volunteer at a thrift shop for seniors.

Being a millennial, I was 30 to 50 years younger than most of my fellow volunteers and the store patrons. But for those three hours each Wednesday, we laughed together, shared our stories and adventures, and did so on equal footing, without age setting us apart or forcing us into a hierarchy.

It was a valuable experience, and one that made me reflect on an overlooked issue in Canadian society: the distant and often cold relationship between generations.

According to recent research, Canadians 40 and under think baby boomers are leaving a negative legacy on society, and the further one gets from one’s own age group, be it 18 to 24, 25 to 40, 41 to 56 or 57 to 75, the less favourable other generations are toward them and the less time they spend together.

It has also been shown that younger Canadians actively avoid interacting with older Canadians, think of them as less vital to society and harbour numerous other ageist stereotypes.

This may just seem like a bit of intergenerational rivalry, one that means little beyond a research paper, but how people are treated is determined largely by how they are perceived, and how they are perceived is tied to whether they have the chance to develop close relationships.

While Canada is home to countless youth-engagement initiatives, clubs focused on millennials and programs for seniors, you will be hard pressed to find many that bring the generations together in the same room, on the same level.

Instead, there has been growing age segregation in community programming, with the needs and interests of each generation being seen as incompatible with the others. It is no wonder, with limited chances to know one another on equal footing, that each generation looks questionably upon the other when they could be enjoying the benefits of working together.

According to recent research, Canadians 40 and under think baby boomers are leaving a negative legacy on society, and the further one gets from one’s own age group, be it 18 to 24, 25 to 40, 41 to 56 or 57 to 75, the less favourable other generations are toward them and the less time they spend together.

And the benefits are many.

For young and old, intergenerational interaction improves physical health, reduces anxiety and depression, and combats negative stereotypes. It has been shown to increase prosocial behaviour among youth, with younger and older participants recognizing their shared humanity and showing greater appreciation for one another.

And it has the potential to save millions of dollars currently spent on treating the symptoms of poor physical and mental health.

Isn’t this the foundation we want under us as we tackle ever more pressing challenges: socially engaged, happy, healthy, and community-focused Canadians working together?

To make this a reality, several steps must be taken. Across sectors, intergenerational interaction needs to be incorporated into regular programming currently focused on empowering specific age groups, be they for young adults, middle-agers or seniors.

Key to this is reciprocal exchange, with curriculum and activities focused on how each group can share something with the other, and put their strengths together to reach a common goal.

One example Canadians can look to as a model for success is the EngAGE program. Offered in several U.S. states, it provides community art activities that older and younger participants work on together, and then display publicly.

Something also worth exploring in Canada is intergenerational living, in which seniors and younger persons share living quarters and mutually support one another. This promising model simultaneously brings generations together and makes housing more affordable, an apt combo for a country with an aging population and exorbitant housing market.

Finally, as a society we must stop being rigid in how we think of others. This does not mean we should never see age or colour or gender or sexual orientation, but to remember each of these are only one part of a person.

In doing this, we can create communities in which neighbours can rely on neighbours, and we can trust one another no matter the age or background.

And when we do that, we can do so much more.

Spencer van Vloten is the editor of the BC Disability website.

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