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The Elderly and You
As our elderly population undergoes major changes due to aging – retirement, widowhood, social and health issues, and other factors, so does their need for holistic relationships that allow them to feel loved, supported, in control and full of purpose. Intergenerational relationships within the family unit plays a vital role in what can truly be the golden years for our elderly. The scope of my research includes the benefits and challenges of familial intergenerational relationships and the impact on the quality of life and, possibly, life span of this family member. Studies on intergenerational relationships in Korea, the country with the highest and growing rate of their elderly population; Japan, a country with the highest life expectancy, UK who are focused on implementing programs that will further our understanding on the long-term benefits of intergenerational relationships and shared living. Furthermore, the United States have not only recognized the benefits of intergenerational relationships but have begun implementing programs that create holistic relationships between the young and the young at heart.
Life’s two biggest changes for the elderly population are retirement and widowhood. Retirement is more than the end of a familiar routine. It impacts social interactions, financial and social resources and, in many cases, their ability to live independently. Widowhood is a realistic possibility as they age. Both factors lead to loneliness and isolation. In the UK, it is reported that loneliness affected “more than 1.2 million older people […], with an estimated 200,000 older people acknowledging that they have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month, while some 3.9 million older people state the television is their main form of company (L. Cornell, L.). In an effort to address and alleviate this health concern amongst the elderly population in Europe, the NHS England initiated community programs that connected older and young generations. For example, in Holland, a Dutch non-profit organization Humanitas, runs a retirement home for the elderly where students also live there rent free in exchange for 30 hours a month dedicated to their elderly neighbors. Clearly, these types of initiatives benefit the students who may be struggling financially and the benefits to the elders are reduced health issues, a reduction in loneliness and isolation, increased knowledge and understanding for both.
Now, to understand the depth of the importance of intergenerational relationships, it is important to understand the difference between loneliness and isolation. When a person’s desired level of social interaction does not match the existing level of interaction can lead to loneliness. Therefore, loneliness is subjective. In contrast, isolation “is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not the quality of relationships” (Wigfield, A. et al). If a person feels isolated, they can improve that by increasing the number in their social circle. Although, one concept is subjective, and the other is objective, they both are linked to depression. Depression impacts their ability to take care of themselves and leads to health concerns, such as, hypertension, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, higher risk of falls, increased hospital visits and death. It is clear then that the quality of intergenerational relationships is as important, if not more, than quantity of contacts.
There are various cultures throughout the world that take a unique approach to aging. The For example, Korean Longitudinal Study of Aging followed 5,050 Koreans aged 60 years old and older in one of the four living arrangements: “single household”, “one-generation household”, “two-generation household” and “three-generation household” to understand the impact on the quality of life and the health-related quality of life. The other factor taken into consideration was the marital status of the adult child. The result of the study showed (1) that elderly women and (2) those in low income groups are, specifically, at higher risk of lower quality of life. They saw the need for the government to address this phenomenon by developing programs that benefit elderly individuals in various living arrangements and those living alone.
Japan, another example, is grounded on the concept of value and self-worth called ‘ikigai.’ Currently, 21 percent of its population is over 65 in comparison to the United States at 13 percent. The expectation is that by 2040, Japan’s elderly population will grow to 38 percent. Gerontologist Dawn Carr states that “part of this phenomenon can be explained by Japan’s low proejected fertility (1.2 births per woman, compared with 2.1 in the United States), but the country also has the world’s highest life expectancey, at 82. […] “Japanese women who reach age 65 can expect to live an additional 23 years; men, 18” (Carr, D.). These number, in no way, indicate that elders in Japan don’t experience the same challenges from retirement and widowhood as others do in other parts of the world. Quite the contrary, they do. The difference lies in how they manage these challenges.
Yoshiko Matsumoto, a linguistics professor at Stanford and the author of Faces of Aging: The Lived Experiences of the Elderly in Japan, explains that individuals 65 and over refer to their ‘ikigai’ or life purpose to guide them in the manner in which they seek to be useful, be it “exercise to social engagement to productive contributions and engagement with their families and society” (Carr, D.). Due to their growing elderly population, businesses in Japan have recognized the value of their elderly population and they are being considered to fill shortages in the workforce. Unfortunately, in most western cultures the elderly is seen as frail and most elderly feel like they are a burden to others. This mindset robs them of their value, their self-worth and purpose and impacts their quality of life and shortens their life expectancy. However, in recent years, the U.S. has seen a shift in the elderly population and in intergenerational relationships.
The AARP ran their own research on the health benefits of shared living based on the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. They found that “9 out of 10 individuals ages 65 and older want to stay in their homes in their later years” (Harvard Health Letter). This goal is not always possible due to challenges beyond their control, such as limited income or declining health. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data collected and analyzed for the Harvard Health Letter, “between 2001 and 2016, the number of Americans ages 65 or older increased by 40%. During the same period, the number of people 65 or older living in a grown child’s home nearly doubled (from 1.4 million to 3.4 million), as did the number living in a sibling’s home (from 226,000 to 453,000).” This shift can be attributed to people living longer, a decrease in heart attacks and strokes, and cultural diversity. The Census data shows that Asian and Hispanic households are, traditionally, multigenerational – parents, child(ren), grand-parent(s).
For those who do not have children or siblings, shared living has become a viable option that allows them to remain in their own home. However, the benefits of shared living or having housemates extend further than just remaining in their home. The first benefit is finances. According to the analysis done for the Harvard Health Letter by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) elders living with renters or boarders more than doubled in 2016, from 400,000 to 900,000. This affords the elderly individual more income that allows him/her to keep living in their home without sacrificing basic needs like food and medicine. Secondly, it avoids isolation and loneliness. According to Jennifer Molinsky, senior researcher with the JCHS, “three-quarters of older adults are aging in suburbs or rural areas, which as the potential to be isolating – especially when you give driving with age” (Harvard Health Letter). Since isolation and loneliness are the greatest risk factors for major health problems, having someone in the household is socially and mentally stimulating, is probably the greatest benefit of all.
Thirdly, it can help in keeping the elderly individual independent. For example, they gain someone who can drive them to the market and doctor’s appointments. They can cook and eat healthier. The renter or boarder can assist with medication management, personal care and even motivate them to exercise and socialize. It can also save their lives in the event of a medical emergency occurring, such as a heart attack or stroke. Like any other living arrangement, for it work, ground rules must be put in place.
Adult care facilities in the U.S. also acknowledge the importance of the connection between youth and seniors. In fact, Jenee Mendillo, in the Senior Care Blog, lists 10 benefits of intergenerational relationships. They are:
1. Opportunity for both to learn new skills
2. A sense of purpose for both
3. Alleviate pre-conceived fears children may have of the elderly
4. Understanding and acceptance of aging
5. Invigorate and energize the elderly individual
6. Reduce depression
7. Reduce isolation
8. Fill a void in children who do not have access to their own grand-parents
9. Help keep family stories and history alive
10. Introduction to technology which may aide in cognitive stimulation and a broader social circle (i.e.: Facebook, other social websites)
There is no doubt that there will be challenges in an intergenerational relationship. By nature, adolescents are self-centered, disengaged, temperamental, impatient. The elderly can be ornery and equally impatient. Yet, according to Ms. Mendillo’s experience at Bayshore Home Care the benefits always outweigh the challenges. She has seen, first hand, how “caregivers have had our country’s rich history brought to life through the stories” shared by their clients and to see “the spark of vitality return to the faces of so many of their clients who benefit from the youthful conversations they share regarding current events” (Mendillo, J.).
In conclusion, intergenerational relationships in the familial unit is the ideal solution in the building and nurturing of holistic relationships that gift our elderly population with a sense of value and self-worth and a purpose beyond retirement and widowhood. For those who prefer to live their golden years in their own home, shared living is a viable option as it affords them independence, help with personal care, and financial stability. Of course, never losing sight that quality of the relationships is vital to their quality of life and well-being. For those who are childless and without siblings, along with those whose family member are unable to be caretakers, home care is a viable option. Especially, since they recognize the mutual benefits of intergenerational relationships. They are initiating programs that build and strengthen these relationships, such as, storytelling, shared hobbies, teaching each other new skills/technology and so much more that involve staff members and volunteers.
- L. Cornell, L. (1992). Intergenerational Relationships, Social Support, and Mortality. Social Forces. 71. 53. 10.2307/2579965. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/documents/en- gb/for professionals/evidence_review_loneliness_and_isolation.pdf
- Wigfield, A., Alden, S., Turner, R. & Green, M. (2018). Loneliness and Isolation – understanding the difference and why it matters . Cara Connect. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our- impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/loneliness-isolation-uderstanding-the-difference-why-it-matters/#
- Carr, D. (2013) Embracing the Japanese Approach to Aging. Nextavenue. https://www.nextavenue.org/why-we-need-embrace-japanese-approach-aging/
- “The Health Benefits of Shared Living.” Harvard Health Letter, May2018, Vol.43 Issue 7, p1-7.2p
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