Intergenerational programs: a way to address social problems

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We often hear about isolated seniors who have no family close by, at-risk youth left to their own resources, or no resources at all, and young children with no access to grandparents.

These situations can often contribute to social problems.

The term “generation gap” is widely used in the workplace and throughout our society to describe the disconnect between the different generations. Despite a “gap” that no doubt exists, there is a growing movement that brings generations together, recognizing the benefits to both those involved and their communities. These intergenerational activities and programs foster relationships between individuals and, at the same time, address social issues like loneliness and social isolation, ageism, cultural identity gaps, poor educational outcomes, digital divides, cognitive decline in older adults, and the list goes on.

At Volunteer Canada, we are exploring both the theory and the reality of intergenerational programming, and the benefits of intergenerational volunteering have become increasingly clear.

Here are three inspiring Canadian programs that illustrate some of these benefits.  

Cyber Seniors (Ontario, spreading outside the province)

Founded in Ontario in 2015, Cyber-Seniors is a non-profit organization with a mission to bridge the digital divide and connect generations through the use of technology. 

The program provides tech-training for seniors using an intergenerational volunteer model. High school and post-secondary students are trained to act as digital mentors. Seniors gain access to effective technology training and as they become more comfortable using technology in their daily lives, they are able to connect with a welcoming intergenerational online community, which serves to increase their well-being and offers them safe opportunities to engage.

The benefits are clear for the seniors, but there are many benefits for the young people as well. The program began as a high school project that inspired two students to create the organization. They recounted their experience in an award-winning documentary film that clearly demonstrates how learning to use the internet transformed the lives of the seniors involved. They became more socially connected, and the fact that they were mentored by teenagers allowed those from both generations to grow and learn.

Voices in Motion (Victoria, BC)

Voices in Motion is an intergenerational choir for adults with memory loss, their caregivers, friends and students. It began in 2017 as a result of four University of Victoria departments (Nursing, Psychology, Sociology and Music) that joined forces to study the effects of choir participation on those living with dementia.

They found that a multigenerational choir offers an effective nonpharmacological approach to the disease with surprising benefits for all who participate.

The stigma associated with dementia can create barriers and social isolation, which lead to elevated levels of stress hormones and inflammation, as well as higher risk factors for numerous diseases and death. Singing in a choir lowers these barriers thus improving the quality of life for those with dementia. In addition, all choir participants experience love, connection and support which helps foster increased socialization, cognitive function, sense of meaning and a mutigenerational appreciation of others. By the time the pandemic struck in 2020, Voices in Motion had expanded to three choirs.

While research on dementia was the source and origin of this project, and choral music is its medium, the intergenerational aspect is key. Each choir is multigenerational – comprised of children, teens, young adults and older adults – fostering a caring and supportive community for all ages. As the singers engage in each other’s stories, cross-generational empathy is created which leads to genuine connection and understanding from youngest to oldest.

Intergenerational Classroom (Saskatoon, SK)

​The iGen intergenerational classroom in Saskatchewan is an innovative learning partnership where grade 6 public school students spend a full school year learning in a unique setting at Sherbrooke Community Centre, a community long-term care centre. Students learn through place-based education – the entire Sherbrooke facility and the broader community is their classroom – and their learning takes place throughout the centre.

The goal of the iGen program is to create a life-changing intergenerational learning experience where relationships are fostered, kindness, critical thinking and life-long learning are encouraged, and future community leaders are empowered. Elders share life experiences and wisdom and receive the opportunity to work with students as mentors and teachers, while students bring new energy and ideas to share with people living in the Sherbrooke community. Members of each generation share both stories and values as they serve and support one another during the learning process.

The curriculum is taught in an integrated way. Through inquiry projects, students learn and work with their teacher as well as the centre’s residents and staff. They are motivated through assessment, conversations, and regular feedback from a variety of adults. Young people in this classroom take part in Literacy for Life practices as they form relationships with peers and Elders. They develop language and meaningful communication skills that are not so easy to learn in a regular classroom.

There are, of course, many other types of programs from cultural and intercultural programs to volunteer grandparents, to physical spaces shared between pre-schools and seniors’ residences. What all have in common is that they are purposefully designed based on both research and experience and are focused on learning and relationship-building.

Through our work on Intergenerational Volunteering we aim to:

  • turn a spotlight on intergenerational programs,
  • encourage older adults to volunteer with children and youth,
  • introduce school-aged children and adolescents to volunteering with people in other generations, and
  • support organizations to design or improve programs that help fill gaps in their communities.

Watch for an Intergenerational Volunteering section on our website in Spring 2022, which will include general information about the range of Intergenerational programs and activities in Canada and some essential criteria for success. You will also find a searchable inventory of programs, information and resources on intergenerational programs and volunteering. If you know of an intergenerational program in your community or if your organization is currently offering one, please contact [email protected]

Did you know that Canada has an Intergenerational Day? Check it out!

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