Intergenerational Volunteering: Engaging the Present – Strengthening the Future

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Written by:

  • Shaminda Perera, MEd.; Knowledge Practice and Learning Lead
  • Anita Newling; Intergenerational Initiative Manager

Photo Credit: Elliot Manches

“When the power of respectful intergenerational connectivity is unleashed, it is societally changing. Individuals of different generations nurture friendships, understanding and compassion while strengthening their communities”. BC Association of Community Response Networks. (2023).

Did you know that there is tremendous potential in intergenerational volunteering? Intergenerational Volunteering brings older adults and youth together in mutually beneficial ways. It creates meaningful connections between generations so that they can learn from one another while imprinting the values of volunteerism in the younger generations – planting the seeds for the future. Further, it can be a solution to social issues such as loneliness and social isolation, ageism and other stereotyping, cultural identity gaps, digital divides, and cognitive decline in older adults and at-risk youth.

“Intergenerational practice aims to bring people together in purposeful, mutually beneficial activities which promote greater understanding and respect between generations and contributes to building more cohesive communities. Intergenerational practice is inclusive, building on the positive resources that the young and old have to offer each other and those around them.”
A Guide to Intergenerational Practice, Beth Johnson Foundation, 2011

Benefits of Intergenerational Volunteering to Volunteers and Community
The benefits of intergenerational volunteering are well researched and far reaching.

Building a Legacy: Older volunteers leave a positive impression on future generations by contributing today to a dynamic volunteerism movement while building a legacy of service, kindness, and respect for others.

Shared Learning: Older volunteers are well-positioned to share their lived experiences and professional expertise, while younger volunteers bring fresh perspectives. All generations can learn from one another. The older generations carry a wealth of experience with them, while the younger generations are more attuned to current trends and advancements in science, technology, and community mobilization.

Combating Social Isolation: The loneliness epidemic is rapidly spreading across Canada, affecting older adults. At the same time, there is a disconnect observed, especially among Generation Z. Intergenerational Volunteering is an excellent solution, engaging different generations to be active, connected to the community, and gain a sense of purpose.

Improving Health and Mental Wellness: As we see a decline in health and mental wellness, Intergenerational Volunteering can help address this. Evidence-based findings show that participants of all ages have increased confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, reduced anxiety, isolation and loneliness, and reduced falls and frailty in older adults.

Strengthening Community: Having Intergenerational programs in a community can lead to an increase in social cohesion and sense of community. They can help address ageism and age discrimination on a wider scale than just with the participants. Older adults can also feel safer in their communities, with an increase in neighborhood trust.

Impact on Community Organizations
Diverse Skill Sets: Intergenerational teams offer a wide variety of skills and talent, from technology, storytelling, organizational operations, and project management to crowd mobilization.

Social Innovation: Thoughtfully designed engagement of different generations sparks creativity. Imagine a retired project management professional collaborating with a post-secondary student pursuing a course related to community development.

Community Engagement: Community organizations are undoubtedly hubs of community connection that foster respect, cultural competence, trust, and goodwill.

Sustainability: Intergenerational relationships ensure continuity of values and principles – passing the torch of giving back to the community and in service to others.

Thoughtful Design of Intergenerational Initiatives
Intergenerational volunteering initiatives are all unique and should meet the needs of participants and the community. Ideally, both age groups would contribute to the development of a program.

There are different approaches to programs. One could be an activity, thoughtfully designed to enable shared learning. For example, older adults volunteer to help high school students with homework, and the younger generation helps older adults with technology assistance. Another approach could be where one party volunteers to help deliver a program designed for the other party. For example, young persons volunteering at a seniors’ activity centre, providing their musical talent during senior programming. These are just 2 simple examples. As mentioned, each program will be unique, and an intergenerational practitioner can help you design an initiative that is right for your organization and your participants.

There are other things to consider before developing an initiative. It’s important that when you bring older adults and youth together that you have prepared, and it is intentional. When we bring different generations together one of the core outcomes is to challenge ageism. If this isn’t done with care and preparation, you can create more ageist thoughts among both groups. It’s helpful to chat about topics like ageism, preconceived ideas about age, physical challenges, gender and neurodiversity, and again, Intergenerational Practitioners can help you with this preparation.

Intergenerational volunteering activities can be designed across the ‘Spectrum of Volunteer Engagement’. The important thing to note here is that it is about the thoughtful design of activities and not simply opening a volunteering initiative for all age groups.

Measuring Success
Measuring the success of intergenerational volunteering should go beyond data gathering on the rate of volunteering. The effort should encompass measuring the impact of the intergenerational relationship. As such, you could consider the following metrics:

Quality of Relationships: Are volunteers truly building relationships across generations?

Level of Shared Learning: Identify the level of skills and knowledge transfer taking place between generations.

Sustainability of the Initiative: Identify the endurance of engagement. Do volunteers stay engaged throughout?

Level of Inspiration: Is the magic of intergenerational relationships truly alive? Are volunteers inspired by one another’s stories?

In conclusion, there are many benefits of Intergenerational Volunteering but there are also many considerations before bringing different generations together, to ensure the experience is positive for all participants. Intergenerational Programs don’t have to be complicated or started from scratch. You may already be running an initiative that could easily have an intergenerational component added. Practitioners in the field can help you take an intergenerational lens on your work. Finally, Intergenerational volunteering isn’t just about volunteering rates; it’s about the quality of relationships between generations inspiring one another.

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