Four tips for building intergenerational connection into social impact work

Future of Good and SE Health hosted a digital conversation about the future of aging in Canada — and how the social sector should adapt

Why It Matters

Older Canadians and youth are two of the demographics who’ve suffered the most throughout the pandemic. Experts in intergenerational connection say key to community recovery will be building connection across age groups, but it won’t be easy.

This story is in partnership with SE Health. 

“Status quo led us to a place where, when a pandemic hit, seniors were most impacted,” said Abid Virani, COO of accessibility testing platform Fable, in a Future of Good digital conversation last week. 

The status quo he was referring to is the way North American culture views and takes care of older people — largely, speakers on the panel agreed, by keeping them separate from the rest of their communities. That’s resulted in older Canadians experiencing widespread social isolation and loneliness, the very experience organizations that work across generations want to avoid. 

We asked the three digital conversation speakers: Coming out of the pandemic, how can the social impact world foster deeper intergenerational connections? Here’s what they told us:

 

Intergenerational connections will need repair after the pandemic — but it’s worth it

A major aspect of building better systems of care for aging, speakers agreed, is fostering connections between generations. But the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the work many organizations have been doing on intergenerational connection. Amanda Jenson is the executive director of Volunteer Lethbridge, which runs a program called Keep In Touch, where volunteers reach out to vulnerable seniors to help prevent social isolation through the pandemic. 

Initially, Jenson says there was a lot of interest among students to volunteer to do this outreach, but “we really didn’t find it to be generally successful,” she said. “The level of fear (seniors) were facing from our current situation…they wanted to talk to somebody who they felt would get it.” Jenson said she doesn’t know if, “as we come out of the pandemic and we’re vaccinated and that level of fear can decrease somewhat, whether that comfort with making connections with those of another age cohort will come back.” 

Kenneth Chau agreed. He’s the founder of Happipad, a platform that connects people who have empty living space in their home to those looking to rent rooms — often older Canadians renting to younger people, but not always: “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had several intergenerational matches that actually fell apart, because, for instance, seniors were uncomfortable with a student going to campus,” he said. “We’ve noticed now, during COVID, seniors generally do prefer to reside with other seniors…I think health and safety concerns with COVID placed a lot of strain on intergenerational partnerships.”

But working to repair those connections will be worth it, the speakers agreed. Many seniors’ only interaction with other generations — and with the rest of society in general — is through the healthcare system, said Jenson. But these interactions often aren’t meaningful enough. One of the most common pieces of positive feedback her team receives “is that we have the time. When there is a person who’s feeling alone or isolated and they become part of the program, there’s somebody who has the time to actually talk to them, whether it’s about something serious or whether it’s about just getting to know (them), or the news,” she says. “The health system is sometimes the only contact our participants will have with the community, and they don’t have that time. They’re on five- or ten-minute schedules.” 

 

Take a closer look, though, at the power dynamics of young people helping older people

Virani cautioned against leaning on an assumption that older people need help from youth. He said there can be dangerous power dynamics in that kind of relationship, and ones that undermine the goal of giving seniors opportunities to genuinely take part in broader society. 

“How much of the framing (is) ‘young person helping senior’?” he asked, referencing programs or projects that connect generations. “I really wonder about the power dynamics of young people supporting seniors in the context of being an aid, and a help…what happens if we flip that script? How about a volunteer program to have seniors help young people who are struggling? Do we actually end up having the same outcome that we want to have with the opposite framing?” 

Chau had an answer. “When we initially put forward our program to the community, it was students helping seniors around the house, and we found very low signups from senior homeowners, but once we flipped the script and said, ‘Hey, seniors, if you have a spare bedroom, you could help out a student’….that’s when we got a much stronger response.” 

 

Involve older people in designing the products and services they use

“The digital divide keeps getting bigger and bigger because the teams building digital products are able-bodied 30- and 40-year-olds, the bulk of the time,” said Virani. Fable works to counteract that by paying people with disabilities, including seniors, to test digital products for accessibility, but Virani stressed that design teams for digital products should always have members of the community they’re working to support on the team. 

Tech solutions might be the most egregious example of this gap, but it exists across social services, too, the speakers said. “Nothing can beat the lived experience of the users,” Chau agreed. “Matching what we think is a solution to what is a feasible solution from the point of view of the user is such an important question.” 

 

None of the above is possible without shifting your worldview first 

The speakers all agreed that the way North American settler culture understands aging is all wrong. And it starts with our embracing of individualism — that aging well is the responsibility of the individual. “Bringing the language and knowledge set of pluralism, where individualism can intermingle and people can maintain some of those freedoms but also give space for more connection…is definitely a door that could lead us in the right direction,” said Virani. 

Some of this worldview work might mean taking cues from Indigenous or non-Western societies, where intergenerational connection is much more common — or looking at the history of Western settler communities, too. In the context of Happipad’s work, Chau said, “Intergenerational living is not a new concept. It’s something we had for many, many generations.” 

He continued, “We have a legacy of intergenerational living, and it’s only fairly recently that we’ve been atomized and dispersed away from each other…I’m hopeful that we rediscover what it feels like to be connected to those around us of different ages.”