...blinded people to underlying social realities. It has blinded them to the bigger picture. It has made them feel that it's okay not to do the hard stuff. There has to be a balance with the collective good, whether we're talking about the family or society. In everything in life, there is a line that can be crossed. Perhaps we have crossed it. We've gone from faith to obsession. A little is good. A lot is not so good.
Our obsession with the psyche and quick-fix solutions has crowded out other ways of thinking. In fact, thinking itself is crowded out in favor of "trusting your instincts" and doing what "feels right." We are robbed of our ability to analyze and to make serious moral judgments. Our world outlook has been profoundly shaped by our individualistic, psychological view. We have been convinced that all our problems stem from a psychological base. The entire landscape of human events, from sports to politics, has been reduced to psychological terms. It has become more than a philosophy, more than a perspective, but a means of understanding the world, creating a story about the world, and filtering all our experiences. It affects the choices we make, how we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it, and the extent to which we are willing to take social action. What disappears in an individualistic view of things is a common ground of community, the felt sense of collective responsibility for the fate of each other. We don't even have a vision of what's humanly possible or desirable. Again and again, we embrace simple, quick, and easy therapeutic solutions to complex and difficult problems. Just as daytime TV talk shows flit excitedly from one new and exciting psychological insight to another, we too flit from one superficial approach to another. Instead of addressing the complex problems that face the world, we try to make ourselves feel better.
I am not arguing that we should go back to the 1950s, to strict gender roles and demands for self-sacrifice. But what began as a healthy cry for personal freedom has become an obsessive whine for personal satisfaction -- at any cost. What we desperately need is balance. We need one another as much as we need the freedom to be ourselves. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam led an analysis of community with his image of people "bowling alone" -- pursuing purely private ends instead of the communal goals of previous eras. It is equally true that community can do as much harm as it can good; there's a strong sense of community in the Ku Klux Klan -- a point captured by the Princeton graduate students who coined the satirical counter-phrase, "bowling with Hitler." There is obviously a difference between community based on restrictive group practices and coercion, and community based on choice. Self-aware community members are motivated by a sense of being for the group rather than just of the group. When people value a group, they voluntarily abide by its rules of conduct and organize their lives accordingly. People are aware of their connections and make a choice to maintain those connections. It's all about our level of commitment, making judgments and often difficult choices, and, ultimately, having a certain amount of wisdom.
The power of community is considerable. The more committed the members of a community, the more highly they will value the community; the more they value the community, the more likely they will voluntarily follow community standards. When voluntary commitment is high, group solidarity is high (a strong community); the stronger the community, the more likely it can respond effectively to collective problems. Communities that are able to solve collective problems can in turn chart their own course and are most likely to influence basic socioeconomic conditions. The ability to maintain individual identity while at the same time preserving social cohesion is the basis for understanding social conflict and promoting social change. What we need to strive for is not total dependence or independence, but interdependence.
How do we achieve interdependence in practice? We may well be able to start with stronger intergenerational connections as a model. I believe it's easier to bring young and old together than it is to bring together middle-aged people overwhelmed by the demands of career and family.
At this very moment, we are part of a worldwide demographic shift. How we manage this shift, how we rethink our social structures, priorities, and goals will determine whether an aging population turns out to be a blessing or a curse, a source of conflict over scarce resources, or a resource in itself. More and more children are growing up with fewer adults to whom they can turn for guidance, nurturing, and companionship. Many older adults do not consider it their responsibility to play a role in the lives of children. Old people are considered, well, "old" and not worth much time or consideration. Can we bring these age groups together in a meaningful way? The worst thing people can do is judge themselves irrelevant -- even if society is telling you that you are. We need every age.
Intergenerational contact isn't just "nice." It is essential. Intergenerational contact enables young and old to learn from, enjoy, and assist each other -- in other words, to build real community. More intergenerational contact is a very natural way to start to overcome the social isolation of both generations and lay the foundation to address some very real problems facing individuals, families, and communities. By doing something as simple as bringing together a children's daycare and a seniors assisted living facility, we can bring meaning to both groups. There can be many creative approaches to connecting generations and building community.
It is through the perspectives of older adults that we may begin to reignite the belief in community. In Another Country, Mary Pipher argues that the "great divide" between current generations is psychology:
Mine was the first post-popular-psychology, post-communal-culture, and post-TV generation... Our parents are old and we don't understand them. Their experiences have led them to a different set of conclusions about the world. We think our parents are ridiculous for worrying about appearances, manners, causing offence, or what others think. We worry more about meeting our own needs and expressing our feelings. We see them as uncommunicative, and they see us as endlessly massaging our fragile egos. While our parents considered self-sacrifice a virtue, we associate it with being a martyr or a chump. When our parents talk about all they have done for us, we wince. On the other hand, our parents are likely to view our efforts to be independent as heartless... Even when we have the best of intentions, moving across generational boundaries is hard. Many of the tensions between generations are not personal. The difficulties are no one's fault. We can't change our histories, but we can educate ourselves about them. What we need to learn is that neither generation has a monopoly on good mental health and perhaps flexibility works best.
Pipher goes on to argue that today people in trouble may be more exposed but not necessarily more supported. They may actually get less concrete support. Readapting some of our parents' and grandparents' values and outlooks may help us achieve better balance.
In Letters for Our Children: Fifty Americans Share Lessons in Living edited by Erica Goode, retired psychologist Richard Cutler argues that "we have gained in many ways in the last half century, but we should make sure not to lose the values and attitudes that shaped my generation." He writes to his 15-year-old granddaughter Rebecca:
When I was fifteen, my life was unbelievably different than yours. We had no electricity, inside plumbing or central heating. Few families had cars. The harder we worked, the better off we were. We earned approval based on how we worked, how quickly we grasped things, and what we offered to the general good of the community. Here I learned that self-esteem is based not only on what you are but on what you contribute. This may seem harsh, but in a nowhere-near-perfect-world, judgments about contribution and productivity are made all the time.
Trust is vital to our lives, and crucial to our dealings with others. Without it, relationships become unreliable, and our personal lives chaotic. Gaining trust is easy: Treat others with regard and respect, present yourself with taste and dignity, tell the truth, be honorable and ethical. Above all, be constant and predictable, so that others feel secure about what to expect from you. And having gained a person's trust, never betray it.
There are lessons to be learned here. We are all learners and all teachers, all of our lives. An important feature of building a new sense of community is that every age in the lifespan must be represented in order to have enough of the relevant kinds of experiences and insights to draw on in the learning process. Depending on which decade we're born in, we each have a special view of how the world works. Maybe we saw the ending of a war, or the first person walking on the moon, or the birth of the Internet. If we stay only within our own age group, then we come to think that the world is really like what our particular age group perceives, and we miss a great deal. What the world is really like is a synthesis of all the views. This is what makes whole persons and gives us our civic potential.
The Lakota Sioux believe that if the old do not stay connected to the young, the culture will disintegrate. We can see this already. Children watch television and play computer games instead of listening to family stories or helping around the house. Teenagers spend time with their peers prowling the malls. Parents feel isolated and overwhelmed, and older adults may go days without speaking to anyone. No generations' needs are being met.
In rebuilding a caring community, people of all ages must have productive roles, a voice in decision-making, and a sense of responsibility for each other. Children and older adults, the two ends of the age spectrum, must be viewed as resources, not deficits. To build community, we need a renewal of the social compact, whereby each generation gives to the other. In intergenerational exchange, each generation may give at different times according to need; for example, parents may give to their young children and, in later years, receive help from their adult children. Reciprocity can occur over a long period of time and may be unequal. Many adult children helping aging parents say that as difficult as it is, they want to give back because of the love and care they received when they were young. Exchange can be a component of intergenerational solidarity.
We do have to be careful how we build community. First, we can't treat children and older adults simply as the objects of community programs, but rather as participants in community. Second, given that our world outlook has been profoundly shaped by our individualistic, psychological view, we can't depend on private solutions to collective problems. While volunteering to make ourselves feel good and alleviate the human suffering of those immediately around us is a good and noble thing, does it address the underlying social problems? Spending the weekend painting an older person's home or refurbishing a community playground gives people a sense of accomplishment and community connection with minimal time commitment. There are many examples of such fine efforts. But they make people objects instead of participants, and are just a small piece of the community puzzle. Residents of many communities don't vote in local elections, don't know the issues, don't run for office, don't follow local events, or get involved in zoning or environmental concerns. We're far more likely to volunteer to meet a specific human need than to work to elect wiser leaders to pressure major economic, political, and cultural institutions to act more responsibly. It goes back to the simple fact that what feels good and is simple is not what may actually be needed or most useful over the long run. There's a big difference between personal acts of compassion and the human solidarity and work that's necessary to bring about more fundamental structural change.
Our critical social problems demand both individual and structural solutions. To focus on one without the other is folly. To rely solely on volunteer efforts is to duck the basic issue of common responsibility, and to ignore the fact that individual crises are often the result of collective forces. What happens when we focus on the small acts of charity is that we get lost in the trees and can't see the forest. We build five houses with Habitat for Humanity, while escalating rents and lower wages put hundreds of families into the street. Energy goes into all sorts of charitable activities without a focus on any kind of reform, averting people's attention from the real problems. Instead of spending time trying to create a more just social order, we are spending more time than ever trying to fill the gaps. Much of the one-on-one work we do will always be necessary, but we also need to be part of a larger, thoughtful public dialogue about the roots of the problems we face. One director of a youth program likened the problem to trying to pull an endless sequence of drowning children out of a river. Of course we have to try to save the children, to deal with the immediate crisis. But we also need to find out why they're falling into the river -- because no matter how hard we try, we lack the resources, strength, and stamina to save them all.
The problems we face are significant: meeting the health and educational needs of children, 20% of which are poor; increasing opportunities for moderate and low-income people to prosper financially; dealing with increases in violence and drug abuse; decreasing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and age; providing opportunities for all ages to contribute to and feel valuable in society; developing a consensus on the roles and responsibilities of older adults who have finished parenting and/or are retired. Changing family structure is another factor we have to consider as we look long term to building a community for both young and old. Within families, more women are employed full-time, making them less available as caregivers for either children or elderly, sick parents. In addition, lower fertility means that future generations will have fewer adult children as potential caregivers. Who will take care of these people? The market may offer alternatives, but this requires either public or private financing. And, with more blended families how much obligation will children have to stepparents or stepsiblings?
Real community building and social change means connecting to each other, past to future, young to old, family member to family member, neighbor to neighbor, and even the living to the dead. And this kind of connection takes conscious, consistent hard work and active, thoughtful participation.
As you consider all of this, I would suggest these books with useful insights and information related to community building: All Kids Are Our Kids by Peter L. Benson; Building Moral Intelligence by Michele Borba; It Takes A Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton; Rediscovering Hope by Richard Curwin; Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution by E. Franklin Dukes et al; Side by Side by Matthew S. Kaplan; Soul of a Citizen by Paul Rogat Loeb; Material World by Peter Menzel; Intergenerational Programs by Sally Newman et al; The Connection Gap by Laura Pappano; The Friendly Classroom for a Small Planet by Priscilla Prutzman et al; Grandpartners by Linda Winston et al.
Some organizations and websites that offer information and resources useful in community building: Association for Conflict Resolution; Center for Intergenerational Learning; Educators for Social Responsibility; Generations Together; Generations United; Peace Education Foundation; Rethinking Schools; Workable Peace Project; www.2young2retire.com; www.accuracy.org; www.civilrightsmuseum.org; www.idealist.org; www.joinhandsday.org; www.oneworld.net; www.peacejam.org; www.tolerance.org.
Storybooks can be used with children and adults to explore different aspects of community building. Some suggestions: Come Out and Play by Maya Ajmera; Pearl by Debby Atwell; Old Henry by Joan W. Blos; For Every Child by Caroline Castle; Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney; Whoever You Are by Mem Fox; The Old, Old Man and the Very Little Boy by Kristine L. Franklin; Miss Tizzy by Libba Moore Gray; Good-bye, Curtis by Kevin Henkes; Children Just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley; I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Prayer for the Twenty-First Century by John Marsden; Granddaddy's Gift by Margaree King Mitchell; Grandpa's Town by Takaaki Nomura; Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye; My Grandma's The Mayor by Marjorie White Pellegrino; Happy Birthday Mr. Kang by Susan L. Roth; Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan; The Family of Earth by Schim Schimmel; When Artie Was Little by Harriet Berg Schwartz; People by Peter Spier; Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli; What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss; Making the World by Douglas Wood.
Finally, many of the storybooks listed at the end of this kit can be used to explore the powerful difference a relationship between young and old can make from the perspective of mentoring and community building. Some are books that emphasize young learning from old, while others show young helping old. In all cases, it's clear young and old have something very special to offer each other. A sampler: The Magpie Song by Laurence Anholt; The Chicken Salad Club by Marsha Diane Arnold; Cherry Tree by Ruskin Bond; Something to Remember Me By by Susan V. Bosak; The Wednesday Surprise by Eve Bunting; Dear Annie by Judith Caseley; Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola; Loop the Loop by Barbara Dugan; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox; Dear Hope... Love Grandma by Hilda Abramson Hurwitz; Sister Anne's Hands by Marybeth Lorbiecki; Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles; My Grandpa and the Sea by Katherine Orr; Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco; A Visit to Oma by Marisabina Russo; To Hell With Dying by Alice Walker; Miz Berlin Walks by Jane Yolen; I Know a Lady by Charlotte Zolotow.
The etymological roots of the word "community" (fellowship, that which is common) share the same Latin and French roots as "communicate" (to impart, to share, to make common). There are many definitions of community, but one common element is interaction or communication as the source and sustenance of community.
As we communicate to build community, we must recognize that effective communication involves both talking and listening. Community is what we have in common with others, and having things in common is what makes us related. How do we know what we have in common unless we listen? By listening we share the insight, vision, knowledge, compassion, and understanding that is common in community. When we do not listen we deny our membership in a shared world with others. We shirk the responsibility of responding genuinely when spoken to. The speaker-dominated heritage of our culture greatly limits community. In a speaker-oriented culture, we listen only when the speaker is given legitimacy -- by status (including age, gender, and race), political power, logic, rhetoric. We don't listen because listening is the right or best thing to do. Nor does our culture give us praise for listening. So no one -- young, middle-aged, or old -- feels listened to.
Regardless of our lack of emphasis on listening, communication is inherently difficult. It is ambiguous, imprecise, fluid. Add to that the fact that communicators are people -- who have their own goals, can be less than honest, are often indirect and unclear. Now add to all that one more level of complexity -- generational differences.
If you think men are from Mars and women are from Venus (they're not, by the way, but that's for another time), give some thought to the even bigger challenges that can exist across generations. Intergenerational communication can be a breeding ground for misunderstanding. The chronological distance between people means they've lived through very different historical periods and may be operating with different communication assumptions, skills, needs, and experiences. Further, the concept of "generation" is as much a set of experiences as it is a range of years. A relative lack of change makes it easier to bring together the lives of grandparent, parent, and child. But when social change is rapid, there are likely to be more separate "generations" created than when the passing years are indistinguishable. Rapid social change fractures children, parents, and grandparents, making intergenerational communication even more difficult.
Intergenerational communication is also affected by ageist stereotypes. Research shows that middle-aged and older people seem to have more complex schemas of older people than do young people, and are also more likely to identify positive traits of older people. So, they are more open to and effective at communicating with older adults. Young people seem to be more likely to rely on various stereotypes of older people and use patronizing "eldertalk." In our youth-obsessed society, many young people also feel threatened by the thought of their own aging and the fact that they will one day belong to the "other" group (i.e. old people). This may be why some teens and young adults actively avoid interacting with older people. In one study of college students, participants reported that they spent about 85% of their time with young people (those under 35 years), 13% of their time with middle-aged people (over 45 years), and only 4.5% of their time with old people (over 65). I've often heard young people say, "Well, you know how old people are." Well, how are they? From what I've seen, they are happy and sad, active and not, interesting and boring, polite and rude, caring and inconsiderate. In short, they are like the rest of us: human. The only thing most older people share is that they have lived a certain number of years on this earth, which admittedly gives them a common perspective to a certain degree. But at the same time, by denying older people their individuality, we rob them of one of the most precious things they have: their identity. We also rob ourselves of the chance to learn more about the fullness of humanity.
There are hopeful signs in intergenerational communication. One recent study looked at young adults in conversation with older adults (age 65-85) they didn't know. There were participants from nine countries, a mix of Eastern countries (Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines) and Western countries (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Canada came out on top in terms of the most positive interactions with older people, with the US second. Interactions were reported to be satisfying and positive. Older adults didn't negatively stereotype the young and were perceived of as supportive, attentive, and generally encouraging. The young tended to have respect for the older adults, with some age accommodation, but not a heavy obligation factor. And there was less ageism in the Western countries than the Eastern countries; participants tended to emphasize who the person was more than their age.
It's interesting that although Chinese culture, for example, regards elders more positively than Western cultures, this doesn't translate into improved intergenerational experiences or contact. Eastern cultures may be politer, show more outward respect, and feel a responsibility to care for older adults, but they don't report any higher satisfaction with their intergenerational interactions. Because of cultural conditioning, they may feel pressure or a burden when it comes to older adults. And they often still hold negatives views of "old people" that include boredom, physical decline, and a lack of decision power. They treat elders well, but don't take them seriously. Eastern cultures have also undergone tremendous cultural changes along with rapid technological development, and this may account for the more negative views of elders as having been "left behind."
Although Western cultures may have come out on top in one study, it's important to recognize there's a lot of work left to do. Whether interactions are described as satisfying or nonsatisfying, they still tend to be limited and to encourage ageist stereotypes. A "satisfying" conversation may be satisfying because a young person is surprised at how accommodating and interesting that particular older person is (which does nothing, ultimately, to deal with the bigger stereotypes of older people). In "satisfying" interactions, it may also be that each generation held to their proper "generational script" and didn't step on each other's toes. Young and old collude in talking about age -- the young person might say, "You're 87? You don't look 87! I hope I look like you when I'm 87!" with the response from the older person being, "Oh, thank you, dear."
We live in a world that has ambivalent feelings toward diversity. On one hand, it's celebrated and embraced. On the other hand, discrimination and prejudice toward those unlike us is prevalent. To build community, we must bridge this gap, particularly when it comes to those who are not the same age as we are.
Children come into the world with promise and potential. They are little beings filled with hope. But many children quickly end up feeling hopeless -- not only those we label "disadvantaged" but also those who come from middle-class homes. Middle-class children live in the same unconnected, media dominated, pop culture environment. These children can be pampered into laziness, purposelessness, and a sense of entitlement by too much wealth and too little challenge. Or children can be trapped into failure by poverty, hunger, loneliness, and illiteracy. Both ends of the spectrum must be addressed.
Children are dependent on their family -- their parents and grandparents -- and their school to prepare them for adulthood and to participate in their world, their community. The school can be a key place where we begin to rebuild a sense of community. Our social problems cannot be solved by schools alone. But that doesn't mean schools, with our support, can't play an important role in making things better, especially for the young. Schools can become models of the larger sense of community we need in our neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Part of this involves giving schools the money, staff, and resources they desperately need. Another part involves a change in approach.
The classroom can become an oasis in a world that does not treat children fairly or encourage community. This can happen in a number of ways. First, there can be a shift to a cooperative rather than competitive approach. There is a heavy emphasis on the adversarial model in our society -- some people are "winners" while others are "losers." Every person is out for themselves. Materialism and greed dominate. According to many sociologists and psychologists, this emphasis on competition is counter-productive and unhealthy. In many cultures, like the Zuni and Iroquois in North America, the concept of competition is unheard of. In places like the Israeli kibbutz, cooperation is prized and competition generally avoided. Problem-solving and working together toward common goals benefit everyone.
Old-fashioned competition has long been perceived as the catalyst that pushes children to perform better. But experts on moral growth warn that too much emphasis on competition can impede the development of fairness. An alternative model for the classroom is one that emphasizes cooperation, communication, respect and an appreciation for diversity, and conflict resolution skills. Children don't need anything special to pursue this alternative model. They can simply do things like take turns, share, negotiate, compromise, and engage in problem solving as they interact with others in a natural, unstructured setting.
One criticism of cooperation is that it reduces individuality and creative expression. Cooperation can actually encourage individuality. Competition encourages us to constantly compare ourselves to others. Cooperation encourages respect for individuality and diversity. Each person's unique strengths are appreciated and used as part of the whole. In research done on cooperatively-structured classrooms, results have indicated that students liked their classmates more, had higher self-esteem, had a stronger belief that they could learn from others, had better academic achievement, and liked school more. It's all a matter of balance -- working cooperatively on some things and individually on others.
Cooperative learning is different than learning in groups. In a regular classroom, a group of individual students may come together to work on a specific project. In a cooperatively-structured classroom, group tasks are ongoing, from working on a project to helping clean up the classroom. Students do their fair share of work and take responsibility for that work. Slower learners are given tasks they can handle while contributing to the group and learning from others. Each student's participation is encouraged because it is essential to the progress of the group. And, most importantly, students are taught the skills for working cooperatively; they are not automatically expected to know how to do it.
The second way that schools (and families) can encourage community is through the activities we encourage children to engage in. This means getting children away from the TV and the computer. They need to consistently interact with other people, particularly parents, grandparents, mentors, and other adults. Research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interaction with people, not things, for healthy brain growth. As they get older, children also need to be engaged in active rather than passive activities. Children learn through active, physical and mental play -- games, making music, storytelling, experiencing nature. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children a number of rights, including play, adequate nutrition, special protection, housing, health care, and education. Children's play is often not valued by adults, who consider it a mere time filler rather than an essential component of healthy development. We need to encourage children to engage in open-ended, spontaneous, active, cooperative play that allows them to freely explore, experiment, invent, and learn about themselves, others, and the world.
The third important component to schools helping to build community is educating the young about how to participate in community. Children need some background in civics. Civics involves those skills, attitudes, and beliefs needed to be a member of community. It was a course many people in previous generations took -- a course about learning to become a useful citizen. Do we know how to participate in community? Who teaches us? A modern civics course might include information on cooperation, conflict resolution, media literacy, issues assessment, political structure, safety, and values such as responsibility, equality, justice, and integrity.
Finally, if schools are to be a model of community, we need to make them an intergenerational place, not an age-segregated enclave. This involves many of the things covered as part of the Legacy Project -- encouraging family involvement in schools, running school Grandparent Days, encouraging older adults to come into schools to serve as volunteers and mentors, and connecting with seniors groups and nursing homes (see below). A true community brings all ages together to benefit everyone.
And what happens as children grow into teenagers and young adults? We must also insure that we involve this age segment in community. Mentors can play an extremely important role here. So can community service. Young people are often looking for opportunities to contribute to community. Even at-risk youth can respond to meaningful, positive community involvement. Researchers have reported that young people develop a sense of personal and social responsibility when they participate in acts of community service. So, not only do the young need to receive help (i.e. mentoring) but they also need to give help (i.e. community service). They need meaningful opportunities to participate in community before they become cynical and lose interest. In an aging society, these opportunities may be found in helping those older adults who face physical, economic, social or other limitations. Young people could help out immeasurably by giving caregivers a break; helping older adults care for their homes so that they can remain in them longer; teaching an older adult how to use the computer; or even starting a neighborhood walking club to reduce isolation.
Young people under 25 years of age, particularly today in a world filled with complex choices, also need help to find their way into adulthood and the world of work. This is one very important area in which we need to develop new life maps. Everyone's life is pretty much mapped out until late adolescence; after that, it's an open field. It can be extremely difficult and frustrating to find your way in the world. And I think we "lose" many good people because they can't find their way, and end up tired and cynical. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for a national newsmagazine when I was 19. It's interesting to listen to the young me express a lot of frustration at the ageism and limited opportunities many young people face. Some things have changed since I wrote the article; many have not. There is passion and energy in the young that we would do well to tap into. Perhaps one key change that needs to be made to our life maps is replacing the linear view of life that equates youth with education, middle age with work, and old age with leisure. A more evolved view should enable people to move in and out of education, work, and leisure throughout their life course. More flexible life pathways provide opportunities for personal fulfillment and community development at every life stage. We need ways to support young people as they establish themselves, lessen the burden on people in their middle years, and foster productivity during older adulthood.
Rebuilding a sense of community involves everyone accepting some responsibility for nurturing younger generations. We need more than just programs, but a restructuring of the way we do things, and the ability to get resources out to the people who need them. The emphasis must be on building the capacity and knowledge of individuals, especially the young, to enhance both personal and social change.
We have such a dismal image of old age in our society: decline, followed by depression, ending with death. Shakespeare, parading the seven ages of humans across the world's stage, declares the "Last scene of all,/That ends this strange eventful history,/Is second childishness and mere oblivion;/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
The myth of aging is everywhere. We are all affected by it, even if at one level we understand that it is simply a story we have created and may not necessarily correspond to the reality we experience. The myth of aging is a powerful, destructive one that profoundly affects the community we create and the extent to which we involve the old in it. Since (if we are lucky enough) we will all be old someday, it is in our own best interest to address this myth so that we can remain an active and valued part of community as we age.
The fact is that older adults today are better educated, healthier, and more financially secure than any other previous generation. They are also more engaged in learning and interested in contributing to their communities. Keeping older people involved in their community can substantially reduce the anticipated drain on financial, health care, and nursing home resources associated with an aging population. A key issue in aging is social integration, the extent to which a person is actively connected and engaged with their family and community. Cross-cultural evidence shows that older adults are able to maintain a fairly high level of physical and emotional well-being when they have something considered valuable by others in their society, whether it be customs, skills, knowledge, or economic resources.
Today's older adults want more than to simply "keep busy." They need activities with meaning. Meaning has to do with feeling that your life still matters (to yourself, at the very least) and that what you do makes sense. It has to do with the conviction that your life is about something more than simply surviving. Volunteer activities, in particular, have been found to bring new meaning to the lives of men and women at midlife and beyond by allowing them not only to perform useful services but also to function as mentors for those who are younger. Older adults can also participate by helping to care for the young, like their grandchildren, and continuing to be involved in paid labor. In the Power of Age section of the Holiday Activity Kit, I introduced some very active, inspiring older adults. These adults still have much to contribute to society, both economically and socially. They are living proof that older adults can live active, meaningful lives and make a contribution to community.
But what about older adults with serious health problems, frail older adults, and the oldest old? The life issues faced by older adults who are well include living with loss, a need for meaningful activities, and the desire to be useful members of society and not be isolated. Frail and functionally limited older adults have the same needs, but require some special consideration for losses of physical strength and perhaps cognitive ability.
In recent years, researchers have divided older adulthood into three general groups: "young old" (65-74), "old old" (75-84), and the "oldest old" (85+). The oldest old are largely widowed (70%) and mostly women (70%). This age group is growing faster than any other segment of the population. In 1999, the 65-74 age group (18.2 million) was eight times larger than in 1900; the 75-84 group (12.1 million) was 16 times larger; the 85+ group (4.2 million) was 34 times larger. The oldest old have the highest potential for functional disabilities. Over 70% of the oldest old have some limitations in one or more activities of daily living. Yet, nearly 45% still have relatively good health and need little assistance in preparing meals, shopping, managing money, or doing housework. 25% do need some help with certain activities of daily living, while 30% need substantial help.
Ensuring that older people can "age in place" is going to be an increasingly important issue. Studies show one of the biggest concerns older adults have is their ability to remain independent, in their own home. Remaining in their life-long home preserves neighborhood-based social relationships. It allows older people to stay connected with their community. Yet, to remain connected to their community, they need the support of their community. They need adequate health care. For many people growing old is defined by, and is a process of adapting to, declines in physical health. They don't feel old unless they are physically ill or depressed. Once their health is adversely affected and a person is unable to receive adequate care, a rapid decline often follows. After health care, daily living supports are important. Even the oldest old can function to their maximum capabilities when the environment provides the context and supports consistent with their abilities. This includes help with items like transportation, home repairs, housework, meals, and personal care activities like bathing. Finding the needed services and paying for them are critical issues for most of the oldest old. When spouses or children are unable or unwilling to provide support, the oldest old look to neighbors and friends. In one study, 30% identified a friend and 13% identified a neighbor as being able to provide the most assistance.
Although most older adults prefer to remain in their own homes, they can become isolated when functional limitations make leaving the house and/or seeking assistance from others difficult. Sometimes help is available, but older adults are hesitant to accept it. In What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader, 86-year-old Dorothy Bobrow comments on accepting help:
My mother was pushing ninety, but she still wouldn't let us give her a hand with anything. "I'm fine." That's all she'd say, but we knew she wasn't. She had heart problems, breathing problems, you name it, just like I do now. And look at me! I've been pushing everyone away, just like she did. It's my pride. I don't want to have to depend on anyone. I want to stand on my own two feet. But it's hard for me to carry my laundry basket and use my cane at the same time. The other day, I let my granddaughter do a wash for me. You should have seen her face, so proud to be helping her grandma. I know this is the way it should be.
For many of the oldest old, there may come a point where no amount of help allows them to remain in their own home. Residential change of any kind is difficult for older people. It generally involves separation from family and friends, and a loss of personal control. Nursing homes and other assisted living facilities are seen as a last resort.
There are 1.6 million older adults living in about 17,000 nursing homes across the US. Women have historically made up about 75% of residents in nursing homes. The average age for women is about 83 years, while for men it's 76 years.
We approach nursing homes much the same way we approach schools: segregation and isolation. Nursing home residents, like children, are often isolated from their communities because of age and capabilities. Like the grade system in schools that favors administration over education, nursing home administrators sort and group residents with similar problems. Whether we're talking about schools or nursing homes, lives are determined by institutional needs -- and we fail in the essential community goals of educating the young and caring for the old. But, as with schools, nursing homes can become models of the larger sense of community we need in our neighborhoods, cities, and nations.
The place we live at the end of a long, full life should be a reward, not a punishment. We can start by putting the "home" back into nursing home. What does "home" mean to you? Comfort? Acceptance? Safety? Personal control? Many of these elements are missing from traditional nursing homes. No matter how old, infirm, or cognitively debilitated a person is, they share the same basic emotional needs as their healthier counterparts. There also remains some part of that person which is still healthy and capable of growth. Some physical decline accompanies aging in even the healthiest of adults. Sensory losses, decreased muscle strength and reflex time, and diminished energy levels are all normal parts of aging. When these declines are coupled with a disease like Alzheimer's, for example, a person becomes even less able to handle the tasks of daily living. But by creatively addressing the physical and social environment, nursing homes can help maximize the strengths, self-respect, and dignity of all older adults, regardless of their capabilities.
Creating community within a nursing home is related to how individuals interact with each other, staff members, their family, and how they contribute to the facility. In traditional nursing homes, people often lose the roles, relationships, and social support that have sustained them over a lifetime. They are disconnected from their own past. The environment is ideal for feelings of isolation and neglect. For many residents, life in a nursing home consists of a repeated daily cycle of predictable activities occasionally punctuated by a specially scheduled social event, a visit from the "outside," or the stress of a health crisis. Over weeks, months, and sometimes years, the repetitive rhythm and routine of each day provides a sense of familiarity and regularity, but also a sense of lifelessness.
Choice can bring back life, and with it meaning. Even functionally limited older adults should be allowed to make decisions, even small ones. Research has shown that involvement or lack of involvement in everyday decisions such as the placement of room furniture, choice of clothing, timing of meals, choice of seating in the dining room, and routine health care greatly affects residents' well-being. Listening to residents, above everyone else, is vital to determining who should make what decisions and why. Different people may have different views of an individual resident's capabilities and needs. A daughter may only come to visit for an hour or so. The nurse only has a shift at a certain time. The social worker only looks at one aspect of care. Everyone has a different perspective. Are decisions reflective of institutional, professional, and personal norms and expectations or of a fully informed understanding of a person's wishes and abilities? Institutionalization can take on a momentum of its own. Even though respect for autonomy is realized and widely acknowledged, action doesn't always reflect the rhetoric. In many cases, it's simply easier to make the decisions for residents.
The approach in nursing homes should be participant-centered. A shift in orientation to a person-centered philosophy allows the experiences and preferences of residents with regard to decisions affecting their lives to be more widely and routinely acknowledged and integrated into the daily life in the nursing home. Even if residents are compromised in some aspects of their self-responsibility and decision-making, they should still have a say about what they wear, where they sit at meals, and how their possessions are arranged in their room. Rather than paternalistic care that reinforces learned dependency, there is a need for a philosophy that focuses on maximizing individual potential. Older adults should also choose how they fill their days. Even in the case of people with significant impairments, choices should be respected as much as possible. For most people, some choices are taken away as they age. You can no longer have children, you are no longer employed, you may have physical limitations. But, the need for autonomy -- the right of an individual to govern themselves according to their own reason -- remains. Of course, health and safety issues must be considered; but these, sometimes along with ease, are often over-emphasized to the detriment of self-esteem and autonomy. There is a fine line between "careful enough" and "too careful" -- but finding that line is important.
The older we get, the less time we have left, making each hour even more precious than the last. Older people need to feel that their time is valuable, and they deserve to fill their days with activities that are enjoyable and fulfilling. A facility for older adults should never resemble a preschool. One of the primary determinants for activities should be meaningfulness. If a person is stringing beads, perhaps it can be as a gift for a grandchild. If they're making a meal, they should know what it's for -- lunch, or perhaps to be delivered to a house-bound person. Gardeners can find satisfaction when they see the flowers they helped care for being admired by visitors or decorating meal tables. In many cases, the most successful "activities" are just an extension of everyday life. Allowing people to do what they would do in their own home -- make coffee in the morning, sit quietly with the newspaper, chat with friends, work in the garden -- is most meaningful and life-giving. The role of staff shifts from telling people what to do to offering a variety of choices and adaptations which allow people to find continued satisfaction in their lives.
In addition to building community within nursing homes, it's also important to connect nursing homes with the surrounding community. One way to do this is through visitors. Never underestimate the power of a visitor. In What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader, 87-year-old Sue Powers talks about waiting for a knock on the door:
I remember how I thought of old ladies like me years ago -- they were cute. In my family, there were lots of great-aunts, shrunken and shriveled ladies living by themselves in tiny apartments, neat as a pin, with pretty teacups. They were so happy to see me when I bothered to drop by on my way somewhere else. That's how it was. I gave them the crumbs of my life, five minutes here and there. It never occurred to me that they were once just like me, that I could pull up a chair and get to know them as people, not just porcelain dolls. Now I'm a shrunken old lady stuck in my apartment, and I know how those aunts of mine waited and hoped for a visitor to brighten their day. My nieces do come over, but it's once in a blue moon. I never know when. A visitor is like gold. It's too bad we can't understand this when we're young and can still do something about it.
There's a misconception that nursing home residents are "abandoned" by relatives. In fact, family members and friends do stay in contact and continue to contribute to the basic care needs of residents. But one recent study showed that contact with family members decreased by approximately half following admission to a nursing home, compared to reported preadmission contact. Many residents do see family members weekly. When family is geographically closer and when a spouse is still living, residents are more likely to get regular visitors. But another study reported that 16% of residents receive no visits by family and 40% receive no visits from friends. Also, those with dementia seem to get fewer visits than those who are simply frail. Loved ones may need more information about dementia in order to increase their comfort level while visiting a cognitively impaired resident.
The "Linking Hearts Young & Old" activity in the Heart to Heart section of this kit has information on visiting and communicating with older adults in nursing homes. Visiting programs not only keep older adults connected to their community, but can help young people learn how to build and participate in community. Elementary-aged children, especially those in fourth to seventh grades, are curious and resourceful. They easily and enthusiastically participate in nursing home visitation programs. They are also often eager to help in a nursing home once they become comfortable. They can help by interacting with residents, pushing wheelchairs, operating the elevator, caring for and handling animals and birds. They learn how to interact with people different than themselves and they learn responsibility -- because the older people depend on them.
Broader intergenerational programs in nursing homes can also go a long way to creating community and improving the lives of older adults. One study looked at the effects of participation in an intergenerational program on the behavior of nursing home residents with dementia. Analysis showed participation in activities with small children lowered residents' agitation levels. Other studies have shown that residents with dementia appear more alert and active, and smile more when they are around children. They derive benefits from direct interaction, as well as just passively watching children play. As they focus on the children and their needs, older adults tend to forget their own problems and be pulled out of themselves. And children, especially toddlers, enjoy being the center of all the attention.
Even the oldest old in nursing homes can give love. They can also act as mentors. If nothing else, they can teach us how to be old, and how to look past our differences to our commonalities. In Am I Old Yet?, author Leah Komaiko chronicles her relationship with Adele, a 93-year-old living in a nursing home who is in good health but legally blind. Komaiko volunteers to visit with Adele for one hour each week. Why does Komaiko decide to volunteer?
To begin with, I was not aging graciously... I was forty-four and in the middle and stuck there forever. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with myself... A clear breeze seemed to come through my head and I heard the words, "Volunteer. Go visit someone who really is old and alone. Get over yourself. Be like a Girl Scout. You'll like it." The next day I called a [local] nonprofit organization called the Elder Corps that found companions for the old and lonely.
Komaiko struggles as she gets used to visiting the nursing home:
Twenty years ago I was still young enough to believe those people could never be me. I thought I would never die. Now I knew I was going to die. I just didn't believe it would happen in this lifetime.
The two women get off to a rough start, but a close friendship slowly develops. Toward the end of the book, Adele sums up the relationship:
I was thinking how much I enjoy our visits. I've met a lot of people in my day and after all these years, I've never met a person like you. I hope I never lose you. The tremendous difference in our ages and lives doesn't seem to make any difference at all.
Komaiko replies, "Back at you."
Beyond making nursing homes real homes, encouraging visitors, and implementing intergenerational and even mentoring programs, we should experiment with making nursing homes an actual part of the community. What if we did away with the entire concept of nursing homes, and replaced it instead with places to care for people of all ages? In doing so, we wouldn't marginalize the old in a single cluster of infirmity. We would also connect the old, who are at a stage in life where they experience many losses, with the vitality of the young -- connect them with, in the words of one older person, "friends who won't die on you." Unlike institutions, real communities are collections of people of all ages and stages who cooperate voluntarily in different ways for different reasons. Community is defined by a diverse membership bound together and dedicated to the mutual accomplishment of necessary tasks. Social diversity is as important to the nursing home as it is to a true community. Perhaps nursing homes should become places that also care for and educate children, places where food is consumed, places where we gather and play. Why not have a summer camp for children? What about an after-school program? What about a daycare? What about a meeting place for 4-H Clubs, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts? The possibilities are endless and enticing.
Understanding and connecting with the oldest old does not take exceptional skill -- it does require the will to share part of the common and everyday quality of their lives. The holy book of Islam, the Qur'an, clearly prescribes how people are to treat each other -- with caring. If parents attain old age, they are to be shown no sign of impatience or reproach, but be spoken to with kind words. When we care for the old, we are being given the opportunity to show our own children how they are to treat us when we grow old, and to learn more about ourselves and our own aging.
Our legacy will in large measure be determined by how we treat each other, our children, and our old -- in other words, the community we create.
From Valentine's Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2004