Good for All Ages: Don't Underestimate the Power of Intergenerational Relationships

By Scobey, Annemarie | U.S. Catholic, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Good for All Ages: Don't Underestimate the Power of Intergenerational Relationships


Scobey, Annemarie, U.S. Catholic


When Emma's mother's dementia became too much for her father to handle on his own, her parents moved in with Emma, her husband, Sam, and their three school-aged children.

"It's been hard, but also beautiful," Emma says. "The way my dad lives out his marriage vows in taking care of my mother is an example to us all, but I'm especially grateful that my children get to see it in such a personal way."

Research corroborates what Emma knows firsthand: bringing the generations together is good for everyone. One study, published in a 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, showed that when older adults are regularly paired with young children, the children benefit from the warmth and attention, and the older adults do better on memory tests and become healthier as their isolation lessens.

A University of Oxford study found that when grandparents are involved in their upbringing, teenagers have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than their peers without grandparent involvement. The study also indicated the teens in relationship with grandparents are better able to handle difficult situations such as a family crisis or trouble with friends. A two-decade Boston College study that tracked the mental health of grandchildren and their grandparents found that both adult grandchildren and their grandparents showed fewer symptoms of depression if they maintained an emotionally close relationship. A piece of data in this study showed that it was important for both the grandparents and the grandchildren to take turns being on the giving end of the relationship. Grandparents who were able to continue giving their grandchildren gifts, advice, or meals out had fewer depressive symptoms, while the grandparents who were only on the receiving end of the grandchildren's help had more depressive symptoms. Likewise, it was important for the young people to be able to do something to assist the grandparents--yard work, running errands, or helping with the computer or phone.

"In general we're pretty awful at aging in our society. We like to pretend it isn't going to happen to all of us," Emma says. "I'm grateful that our family gets to provide my dad with some respite and glad that we get to take care of my mom after so many years of her taking care of all of us. I'm thankful for the empathy and compassion my children have developed by living with someone with a terminal illness."

In an era in which so much communication is done through the written word--text, email, social media--a family connection with older relatives provides important face-to-face time for children.

"My mom is often the first stop for Henry when he gets home from school or a game," Emma says. "He sits with her and tells her about his day, asks her about hers. The conversations are pretty one-sided, but she is a hugely important person to him. Lucy gets to hug and kiss her grandparents before bed every night. Aging isn't some scary, disgraceful thing to her. It's normal."

The current distance between many senior family members and young children is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the modern era, it was common for three--and sometimes four--generations to live under one roof. Before the dawn of the automobile, even if families weren't together in one house, they were often in the same city or town; it wasn't practical for young adult children to move far from their parents. Many families today find themselves a plane flight away from their senior relatives. For these families, volunteering can be an option for building intergenerational relationships. …

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