According to Statistics Canada, nearly one third of Canadian seniors lived alone in 2017-2018 and about 1 in 10 seniors felt lonely in 2021.(1; 2) The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated the problem, in resorting to physical distancing or even closing certain public spaces such as public libraries and community centres for several long months.
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to interact socially. The pandemic has highlighted the social isolation of the elderly, but intergenerational ties have been weakening for several decades, in particular due to the evolution of our ways of living and working.
Yet, intergenerational interventions can have positive effects on people of all ages. When we speak of intergenerational interventions, we refer to activities that bring people of different ages into contact, whether they are carried out in schools, in the community or in care establishments. These are often activities related to sharing knowledge or activities aimed at providing help (whether it's household chores, homework help, babysitting), but it can just be a good time spent together playing or listening to music. For example, think of workshops where teenagers show seniors how to use their smartphones or create a profile on social networks, children from daycare centres visiting long-term care facilities, or seniors offering respite to young parents, etc.
In the following lines, we provide a brief overview of the state of research on non-family intergenerational interventions and their impact on the social and mental well-being of young people and the elderly.
What research tells us
A recent high-quality systematic review identified 500 studies from 27 countries on the effects of various intergenerational activities that do not include family members.(3)
The review revealed a diversity of interventions varying according to the intensity and frequency of intergenerational activities. This could include ad hoc mutual learning activities, distance activities (for example, a pen pal program in which young people exchange letters with residents of a nursing home), activities during holidays and celebrations, or structured programs carrying out intergenerational projects (for example, a campaign aimed at improving the environment of a city which is carried out by teens and older adults).
That said, the interventions examined most often involved activities related to sharing perspectives of being an older or younger person, spending time together, helping with household chores, offering help in the school environment, mentoring , arts and crafts to engage generations together, listening to music and playing games. These interventions were most often carried out in schools, in the community or in nursing homes.
Overall, the most frequently reported effects on children and young people were an improvement in their attitudes towards older adults, in their knowledge and skills, as well as an increase in intergenerational interactions.
For older adults, the most frequently reported effects were improved mental well-being, feelings of control over their actions and consequences, attitudes towards young people, and intergenerational interactions.
However, the authors of the systematic review identified several gaps in the available research. For example, there is little robust research on mutual, societal and community outcomes, youth mental health, loneliness, social isolation, peer interactions, physical health and health promotion, outcomes focused on caregiver well-being, and on adverse effects or unexpected outcomes, including economic outcomes.
It's your turn to forge intergenerational bonds!
Would you like to participate in intergenerational activities? Several initiatives existed before the pandemic and are just waiting to be reactivated!
Check with your community centre or public library. Who knows, you may be able to join a collective kitchen group or a choir, participate in a pen pal program, become a mentor to young people and help with homework. You could pass on your love of gardening or even teach them how to knit.
Accompanying your grandchildren and their preschool friends for story time is also a great initiative to build intergenerational bonds. In addition, civic participation can help reduce your isolation and improve your quality of life: organizations of all kinds are looking for volunteers like you!
In the event that we are facing another pandemic, remember that intergenerational activities must be preserved. Let's keep in mind that several online activities are possible: online games, videoconferences... It is not the options that are lacking, but you still need to have the necessary equipment and the required internet connections!