The pandemic has created a fear of aging. Stronger intergenerational bonds could fix that

Healthcare workers are actively seeking new ways to form intergenerational connections to create a more connected society.

Why It Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased concern for the emotional wellness of older Canadians and the mental health of younger people among healthcare workers. Experts believe this has created an opportunity to leverage intergenerational connections to shape the future of elder care in Canada; if this opportunity is not taken, society will be left in a troubling disconnected state.

This story is in partnership with Saint Elizabeth Health (SE Health).

Dr. Justine Giosa’s career in aging research was influenced largely by the bonds she formed with her grandparents at an early age. “Hearing their stories, learning about my family’s history, heritage and traditions shaped my view on aging as a shared human experience that we should all value and celebrate, not fear,” she says. 

Giosa, managing director of the SE Research Centre at SE Health, says that research at SE Health is guided by a life course perspective on aging, where emphasis is placed on authentically engaging people with diverse aging experiences throughout the entire study process. “We want to change the conversation about aging in society from something that happens when you reach retirement age to a lifelong process of biological, psychological, social and spiritual growth and development,” she says. “Intergenerational dialogue among older adults, family caregivers and health and social care providers through research equips us to better address the care needs, goals and preferences of older Canadians.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought society “back to basics in terms of what people value as important in life — family, relationships, communities and human connection,” she said. Pandemic lockdowns forced people of all ages to find new ways to connect meaningfully with each other to counteract isolation and loneliness. Healthcare workers were fielding more volunteer requests from young Canadians who saw first-hand how older Canadians were struggling, says Dr. Raza Mirza, the network manager for the University of Toronto’s National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly. 

In the early days of the pandemic, the solutions for more intergenerational connection were small-scale and simple: organizations and individuals came together to reach out to older adults who found themselves alone, either in their own homes or in long-term care facilities, through letters and video chats. Grocery shopping became a bonding activity between generations as a form of support — but also connection. 

These intergenerational bonds manifested organically, but Giosa says there’s now a greater demand for the health care system to respond to the rising need for social connectivity among younger and older adults alike. “We need to focus on care that is less about bricks and buildings and more about people and communities” she says. A new research paper, for example, showed the benefits of intergenerational connections after a group of nursing students brought together older adults, people with disabilities and preschool aged children to create a community garden, finding that if everyone came together to build something, they learned more about each other and from each other, thus extinguishing any bias or tension between generations. 

And the stakes are high. “The pandemic has reinforced a longstanding ageism problem in this country and revealed a massive failure of our health care system to meet the needs of older Canadians,” Giosa says. “We‘re all aging from the time we’re born,” she adds. “So how do we equip our society and system to value aging as it happens so older adults get the health and social care they need and deserve?” 

At present, most intergenerational connections happen at the local level through volunteer programs that allow young people to interact with seniors in hospitals or long-term care homes. Relatively few health programs, however, are organized explicitly as intergenerational community efforts, which research suggests have wide-ranging benefits: they have the potential to nurture a sense of purpose and wellbeing among older adults, and even to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with aging. 

Mirza has been working on building more intergenerational living spaces through a program called Canada HomeShare, which matches seniors whose homes have a spare room with students seeking affordable housing. He’s found that the living arrangements help young people understand what it means to be an older adult, and makes older adults feel both supported and independent through the income they make. 

The pandemic has entrenched the need for daily connection even more, Mirza says. “For the first time maybe ever, younger adults are feeling what social isolation and loneliness is,” he says. “It’s been erroneously assumed that older adults were the only ones to feel this. But now there’s more empathy and consideration … and the younger generation is starting to think about what their own old age will look like and work towards solutions that keep them in the community.”

The pandemic has given way to other programs that foster the same empathetic intergenerational relationship. Mirza was part of the creation of Talk 2 NICE, a free outreach and counseling service for older Canadians where young social workers and volunteers could schedule a 15-30-minute friendly check-in to help combat social isolation. 

There’s a huge desire to engage with Canada’s seniors but intergenerational programs are limited.

There’s a huge desire to engage with Canada’s seniors but intergenerational programs are limited,” Mirza says. “We need to create more to help overcome ageism and ageist views and foster a more connected society.” 

Michelle Monkman, an instructor with the SE Health First Nations, Inuit and Metis Program, sees the benefits of intergenerational connections first-hand in her work. Monkman provides palliative care education to Indigenous communities and her courses always have an elder present throughout the workshops. They do an opening and closing prayer and offer advice and knowledge of past practices. “Their knowledge is very valuable,” Monkman says. We’ve started using elders as a reference in our papers because we view them as a reliable source of information.” 

Monkman says the transfer of knowledge goes both ways and destroys any myths older people have about younger people and vice versa, giving way to healthier relationships between the two. “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise,” she says. “Maybe the pandemic will help people realize how valuable our older generation is and they need to be looked after and the way they’ve been looked after at present is inadequate.” 

Giosa agrees. “Intergenerational connections could help to combat ageism in society and foster creativity and fresh thinking in younger generations” in terms of how the health care system in Canada can better value the lives of older Canadians, she says. “It could also refresh our thinking about what is ‘health care’ for older adults and how it should go beyond just providing ‘sickness care’.”