Creating Shared Spaces that Connect Young and Old

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This is a guest post by Sheri Steiningspecial programs director at Generations United

It’s 8:15 a.m. and the lobby of the skilled nursing facility is filled with an air of anticipation as older adult residents are excitedly stationed in their usual spots. Some have brightly colored red, purple or green streaks in their hair, and several staff are dressed in wigs and unusual outfits; a Dr. Seuss display fills the table in the entryway in celebration of Reading Across America and Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Cars pull up outside and bouncing 4 and 5-year olds burst into the entryway, slowing down to carefully fist-bump, give a high five, or offer a gentle pat on the arm to residents who eagerly smile and greet them. One child doubles back and offers a special friend a warm hug; that resident’s face lights up as if she’s just won a million dollars.

It’s just a normal weekday at the Grace Living Center in Jenks, Oklahoma where Jenks Public Schools’ West Elementary pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classroom is co-located.

This cross-age engagement is common at intergenerational shared site programs across the nation, where children and older adults become a part of each other’s daily lives, and hearts and minds are opened. Shared sites connect younger generations with older adults in the same physical location, with regular activities or programs that bring them together.

Intergenerational shared sites make common sense, reducing social isolation, creating livable communities, and positively impacting participants’ lives. People of all ages have built-in opportunities to create meaningful relationships, find motivation, improve skills, and feel the joy of connection. In addition, shared sites create cost-efficiencies of sharing space, resources, personnel, rent, and more.

A new report from Generations United and The Eisner Foundation titled The Best of Both Worlds: A Closer Look at Creating Spaces that Connect Young and Old, explores why innovative and successful intergenerational programs like the collaboration between the Grace Living Center and Jenks West Elementary work and also looks at why they are not more common.

The report identifies four key phases in the development and operation of shared sites where pivotal factors, challenges, and strategies can be critical.

Phase 1: Creating the Vision– at this stage, stakeholders are encouraged to do more than embrace the idea, but also identify champions, build partnerships, and solidify the idea with concrete plans.

Phase 2: Making it Work– like any new venture, a shared intergenerational site requires extensive commitment from all involved. From funders to regulators, licensing authorities, families, and staff. There are multiple points of intersection and opportunity.

Phase 3: Building Intergenerational Relationships– integrating intergenerational interactions in the mission, vision and philosophy of the organization. A key element of this phase requires training, intentionality in implementation, and program coordination.

Phase 4: Maintaining Momentum– launching a program is often exciting, but maintaining it requires diligence and commitment. To do so, stakeholders are encouraged to be open to changes, plan for the future, and remain flexible.

Understanding and anticipating the factors and challenges during these phases and sharing lessons learned from existing sites helps encourage more organizations and communities to embrace their intergenerational possibilities.

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Cities play a critical role in the creation of many intergenerational sites. It took the Los Angeles LGBT Center ten years to build their Anita May Rosenstein campus, and the city of Los Angeles’ support to address the severe homelessness crisis became a large block of their funding. The Champion Intergenerational Center was a beneficiary of targeted grant funding the city of Columbus received from a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from HUD. The purpose was to transform troubled neighborhoods.

The shared sites included in the report represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of the breadth of shared site models that exist and the possibilities of shared sites yet to be created. Opportunities abound to spark the creation of new programs from raising awareness on the benefits of intergenerational engagement to encouraging creative funding for these initiatives to making regulations more friendly to shared sites.

Every city should approach planning, building rehabilitation and construction, and service delivery in terms of natural ways to join the generations, rather than segregate them. Because when we do, we all benefit.

For more information on shared sites and to download the full report, visit www.gu.org.

Sheri Steining is the special programs director at Generations United. Sheri is responsible for leading Generations United’s ongoing efforts to promote and support the development of intergenerational programs.