A Little Intergenerational Interaction Will Do You Right

A Little Intergenerational Interaction Will Do You Right

Last week was celebratory at Temescal Commons, the Oakland, California cohousing community I live in. On Thursday, our eldest member Louise turned 79 and we feasted with sweet potato cakes (she doesn’t eat sugar).

She brought photos of a particularly meaningful interfaith pilgrimage she had taken a couple of decades earlier. A group of us sat around the table and listened to her recount those experiences. We asked her many questions and reveled in our luck to be able to live in such close proximity to a woman who has continually evolved her consciousness and taken action for seven decades. When I was leaving the party to put the girls to bed, Louise and Stella, my youngest daughter, had a sticky embrace. (Stella really enjoyed those sweet potato cakes!)

On Sunday, Stella turned one. Kate, our neighbor, said the most beautiful prayer before dinner: “Dear God, thank you for Stella’s first year of life. This community has been blessed by witnessing her light and joy.” Everyone sang to her as she stuck her hand into the rainbow confetti cake. Tom, a nurse in his 40s, lingered after dinner to play Legos with my older daughter Maya, who is starting to grow impatient at still being three years old after all these months.

Celebrating the eldest and our youngest community members in the span of just a few days reminded me, once again, about the secret sauce of cohousing: intergenerational interaction. It makes all of our lives exponentially better.

When I think about my life before living this way, particularly in my 20s, I am struck at how generationally segregated it was. When I graduated from Barnard College, I moved down to Brooklyn, and my entire social life seemed to move with me. I would share meals and angst with people in my exact same stage of life pretty much every single day.

There was a lot of solidarity but not a lot of perspective. It was like a never-ending loop of exuberant partying and how-do-I-find-my-place-in-the-world freak outs; a little baby or elder energy would have done us so much good.

Too often, our only chances at intergenerational interactions are those with our own family or people at work — both of which are fraught for different reasons. So here are some thoughts about how to create more intergenerational interaction outside of these two realms…

Strike up conversations with your neighbors — young and old alike. If it’s elders you’re seeking out, ask about the history of the neighborhood and how long they have been around. If it’s young people you want to create relationships with, inquire as to what attracted them to the neighborhood. As your casual conversations develop into a real relationship, be explicit about the help you’re willing to give and the help you need — whether it’s someone to demystify how the heck to use the latest technology or someone just to listen to your work woes and help you figure out how to have difficult conversations.

When I lived in Brooklyn, my next-door neighbor Mary, a caretaker for the elderly in her 60s, was my sounding board about many a relationship drama. I fed her birds when she was away. She would often show up with some spicy Caribbean food when I most needed a square meal. It was informal, but so edifying.

Find a religious or spiritual community that speaks to you and start attending regularly. While young people’s religious affiliation has famously drifted away from categorization, there are still a lot of great places to gather — as documented by On Being fellows Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston. Bonds require proximity and frequency. There’s no way around it. Show up and keep showing up. And remember the four keys to intergenerational thriving: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resiliency. This is one, to be quite honest, I’ve failed at. True to the worst stereotypes of my generation, I’ve been more of a religious institution tourist: dropping in and never returning. It feels like I haven’t found my place just yet.

Host an intergenerational dinner party. Like David Simpson and his wife, Kathy Fletcher, who created a weekly meal ritual called All Our Kids. All you need is a dining room table and one kid. Keep the meal simple and collaborative. Create space for every single person in attendance to be the focus at some point. Gratitude and warmth are the most important ingredients.

Join the Generation to Generation community. Powered by Encore.org, it’s about, in their words, “people who believe that experience matters, and that the goal of later life isn’t trying to remain young: it’s to be there for those who actually are.” This summer they are running a special campaign designed to help older people fill in some of the gaps in learning and care that so many young people experience when school is out. Some elders are becoming “bigs” through Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Others are volunteering to read with kids at local libraries.

Surely you have other great suggestions. What meaningful intergenerational relationships do you have in your life? How did they form?

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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  • Gabby

    I spend more time with people not my age than with people my age. Excluding any work example or family example:1: A multi-age group of us, ranging in age from about 20 to about 70 spends a couple of hours a week together writing short stories with groups of kids aged about 10 to 14. A non-profit hosts. 2: Once a week I am in a reflective writing group for two hours with a diverse group of about 15 people uniformly distributed in age between about 25 and early 80s. We get to know each other well. 3: Where we take our dog to play in the late afternoon, most of the other people-regulars are young techie people in their twenties and thirties but there are also doggy parents with flexible work schedules who are in their forties and fifties. The group is not identical each day.
    There is nothing I can think of that I do that IS age stratified principally with people my age.
    Like you, when I was in college and in graduate school and in my first job, I lived, worked, and played mostly with people my own age.
    Since then, that has not been true at all.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Humility is key, indeed. Thanks Gabby. Lots of great examples.

  • Lauren

    I am 23 and realized at a relatively young age that I prefer hanging out with a range of people from all “stages” in life, especially with those older than me, because they always have good stories to tell. I love hanging out with my neighbors. I volunteered at a nursing home this winter to get a glimpse of the oldest generation still with us. There is a calmness and a presentness, if you will, to the energy of an elderly person. I wonder if high schools can organize a program where students can spend first period doing community work that involves getting to know others outside their own realm. Thank you for sharing!

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Love this Lauren. I was actually wondering out loud with a friend the other day if there are certain types (we would see ourselves as among them), who just always appreciate being around older people. It’s a gift.

  • Dane

    My wife and I decided to explore an on-going seasonal conversation with several younger couples, 2 of whom just married. We eat from the season and allow the seasons to offer us the metaphors that guide our conversation (I am a Circle of Trust facilitator so I can’t help but go here…). Everyone contributes to both the food and reflection. We begin with a poem that lights our way into deeper and deeper dialogue. For my wife and I, this feels like part of our ‘eldering’ role – we’re in the 60’s and our conversation partners in their 30’s. Our gatherings have been rich and wandered to places we couldn’t have imagined!

    • Courtney E. Martin

      This sounds amazing Dane! I love this model. Makes so much sense.

  • Krystal

    When I was moving to a new town just before my 30th birthday, a friend introduced me to someone there in her 50s who threw me a dinner party to help me meet people. We became friends over the past few years, and this January she invited me to join a monthly conversation group with her and some other women in their 50s and 60s. Their struggles and strengths have encouraged me by giving me a vision of what happens when one commits to a cause or to a craft for over 20 years.

  • My husband and I are fortunate to both have careers where we regularly interact with people of all ages, so we have friends of all ages. What we’ve noticed as we spend time with friends who range in age from 20’s to 80’s is that what makes people interesting isn’t their age, but what’s inside, and we share with all of these people a passion for learning and growing and living. Spending time with passionate, interesting people of all ages makes us all unaware of age at some level, meaning that I don’t “feel 55,” I just feel alive, and feeling alive is ageless, timeless, and expansive. Thanks for a great article!

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