Academic journal article Generations

Building Intergenerational Communities through Research and Evaluation

Academic journal article Generations

Building Intergenerational Communities through Research and Evaluation

Article excerpt

Most of us take our communities for granted, often because we do not think deeply about how we could make things different, better. Yet we live our lives in communities that are often in great need of revitalization, reconnection, and rejuvenation.

Intergenerational communities where young and old and those in between live and interact with one another are among the richest communities (Calhoun, Kingson, and Newman, I997), though not necessarily from a financial perspective. They are rich because children can experience life alongside those who have done so for decades, youth can learn informally through conversations and activities with neighbors of different ages, and parents can support one another through the many everyday challenges of child rearing.

Some are concerned that such communities are gone forever (Freedman, 1997), that our scheduled, mobile, tired lives have left us uninterested in investing in our communities, and perhaps even unable to do so. Fear of crime adds distance between those living in some communities, and the stresses of single parenting have left many parents without the time and energy needed to look for the support they sometimes seek (Schor, 1991).

Community-based intergenerational programs have developed from a vision of the degree to which communities could potentially be supportive. In such programs, described throughout this issue and elsewhere (e.g., Newman and Brummel, 1989; Newman et al., 1997), younger and older community members come together for agreed-upon purposes that explicitly benefit one or both groups and implicitly benefit all those who are associated with it and the community (and society) at large. These programs are examples of building intentional, caring communities.

THE NEED FOR PROGRAM RESEARCH AND EVALUATION

While the growth of intergenerational programs in communities around North America has exploded over the last three decades, our knowledge of how programs work and their effectiveness in meeting the goals of their developers at both individual and community levels is lagging behind (Kuehne and Collins, 1997). The dearth of research and evaluation information is somewhat surprising given the exponential growth that intergenerational programs have enjoyed; one might expect that for such initiatives to gain acceptance and grow in number, their effectiveness would have to be demonstrated and well documented. However, many intergenerational programs are begun with human-service professionals-not researcherswho identify a need in a community (e.g., youth at risk for academic failure and dropping out of school) and a potential community resource to meet that need (e.g., retired adults). Further, since such intergenerational programs often begin with few financial resources beyond inkind donations, the notion of securing specific resources for research or evaluation of a new program seems ambitious to some and unrealistic to many (Kuehne and Collins, 1997).

Most practitioners and researchers of course realize that program evaluation and research are not the same thing. Evaluation is more focused on programmatic concerns, while research can be much more broadly focused on various types of knowledge, program-based and other (e.g., Smith and Glass, 1987). However, in the intergenerational field, as Ward (1997) argues, studies should not be rigidly categorized as either research or evaluation, since "intergenerational evaluation results are often published as applied research, and many of the same questions, approaches, and instruments are used in both research and evaluation" (p. 118). In line with this view, this paper will report findings of a selection of both research and evaluation studies in the intergenerational program arena.

WHAT WE KNOW FROM RESEARCH

While those working in intergenerational programs, especially those who have been "in the business" for some time, may be able to articulate clearly the characteristics of effective programs matching community older adults with children or youth, the research literature is not yet substantial enough to definitively support the naming of"best practices" in this area. …

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