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Connecting the Generations: How Cities are Fostering Understanding and Trust

Christine Larson is a freelance writer in Sacramento and can be reached at christine.larson@comcast.net. Joan M. Twiss is executive director of the Center for Civic Partnerships and can be reached at jtwiss@civicpartnerships.org. Thea Perrino is program coordinator of Healthy Cities and Communities and can be reached at tperrino@civicpartnerships.org. 


In the next 25 years, the number of California residents over age 65 will more than double, swelling to nearly 18 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the number of children will grow faster than the working adult population.
 
The magnitude of this population change and practical action strategies are described in the recently released A Healthy Community Perspective on Aging Well by the Center for Civic Partnerships. For almost two decades, the Center’s California Healthy Cities and Communities Program has assisted city leaders with improving livability.
Unless city leaders find new ways to bridge the generations, they risk facing a polarized community and electorate less inclined to pass local measures or support fee increases. Intergenerational understanding and trust increase the chances for actions on behalf of the common good.
What follows is a look at promising pro-grams to serve as both inspiration and resource, sparking new ideas about how older adults, young adults and children can help each other live more fulfilling lives and benefit the communities in which they live.
A Two-Way Street: Young and Old Help Each Other
Suffering from failing vision due to macular degeneration, Florence Tutyshiavers, 86, of Duarte, gave up her driver’s license in 2000. But she hasn’t had to worry about getting around. She participates in People Helping People, a volunteer program run by the Duarte Teen Center. (Duarte is a Charter California Healthy City.)
Every year, Tutyshiavers is paired with a new teen who visits every other week. Together, they do errands, work in the yard, and enjoy long chats over lunch.
Both teens and seniors benefit from the program. Students receive small scholarships for their participation. But perhaps more importantly, they learn valuable life lessons from working with older adults.
“I try to show them what a senior should be,” says Tutyshiavers. “Someone who appreciates them and likes to hear what they have to say.”
Established in 1995, People Helping People has 32 student volunteers this year. Many of the teens speak Spanish and are often paired with Spanish-speaking elders. Whatever their language, how-ever, “Teens and seniors have a lot to offer each other,” says Rebecca Michaelis, the Duarte Teen Center supervisor.
For more information on People Helping People, contact Rebecca Michaelis at (626) 303-0863.
Seniors Act as “Dear Abby”
The idea that teens and seniors can help each other also drives the Elder Wisdom Circle, a national organization based in Walnut Creek. Founded in 2001, the program uses technology to connect younger people who need advice with older people who can share the benefits of their experience. In September 2006, some 600 senior volunteers responded to 3,500 requests for advice submitted anonymously at www.elderwisdomcircle.org.
Susan Bistline, 69, of San Francisco, logs onto the group’s database of advice requests every few days, answering 15 to 20 e-mail requests a week. “It’s a wonderful way to keep giving to the community,” she says. A quality control committee reviews all replies, making sure all advice is appropriate and helpful.
Elder Wisdom Circle, which is funded by grants and donations, also offers an easy solution for cities seeking to offer meaningful group activities for seniors. Senior centers and retirement homes often form groups of advice givers. “[Activity directors] query the database and find letters their group would like to work on, print them out and present them for discussion,” says Doug Meckelson, founder of Elder Wisdom Circle. Together, the group crafts a response, which the facilitator submits.
“This is a really valuable organization,” says Bistline. “It has helped keep me from becoming isolated and enabled me to help people even when I’m at home.”
For more information about Elder Wisdom Circle, contact Doug Meckelson through www.elderwisdomcircle.org.
School Success: Seniors, Students Come Together
For the past 20 years, senior centers and elementary schools in Berkeley have participated in an intergenerational exchange program. Once or twice every week, the North Berkeley Senior Center is filled with the sound of children reading aloud to older adults. And once a week, as many as three dozen senior volunteers file into classrooms around Berkeley, ready to help children improve their reading and language skills. The volunteers, ages 65–94, are part of the Senior Scholars Program sponsored by Berkeley’s Adult School.
“The adults are trained to read with the children in small groups and have a discussion. Sometimes they ask questions and have the children write,” says Marge Essel, founder and coordinator of the Senior Scholars Program, which can help children improve their reading skills by one grade level. (The City of Berkeley has been a California Healthy City since 1993.)
For more information about the Senior Scholars Program, contact Marge Essel at (510) 981-5190.
Bilingual Seniors Help Students With Studies
Other cities have also found that children and older adults make natural allies in the classroom. In Westminster, Project SHUE (Safety, Health, Understanding and Education) brings students and seniors together every week to help students master math and reading. Currently, the program has 11 paid senior employees and some 20 volunteers, who meet with about 50 kids in a given week.
From the outset, Project SHUE was designed to provide a small income for older adults, many of whom speak Vietnamese or Spanish. Some of these tutors — who are often paired with bilingual students — have never held a job outside the home. The City of Westminster pro-vides grants (approximately $10,000–$20,000) to help cover program costs, plus two meeting sites with free maintenance and utilities. Additional grants from foundations and corporations help fund the program.
“I’m impressed with how much material the kids cover through Project SHUE,” says volunteer Pete Vella, 74. On most afternoons, Vella helps third-graders memorize multiplication tables or learn parts of speech. But on special days, they have games or holiday celebrations.
“Project SHUE isn’t just a homework place,” says Vella. “It’s a fun place.”
For more information about Project SHUE, contact Diana Daubter at the City of Westminster; phone: (714) 895-2860, ext. 559.
Closing the Generation Gap
One of the best ways for cities to encourage cooperation between younger and older residents is to foster livable communities where the generations mix on a daily basis. One such effort is the City of Westminster’s intergenerational affordable housing development, which opened in the summer of 2005.
“Part of the thinking was that lower-income seniors could earn money from babysitting, and working families would feel comfortable with neighbors whom they know watching their children,” says Don Anderson, community development director for the City of Westminster.
The project, created by The Related Companies, includes two adjacent complexes: Windsor Court, an apartment complex of 58 one- and two-bedroom units for seniors, and Stratford Place, which includes 28 town homes for families. The city council and redevelopment agency provided a $600,000 loan on the project, which is located within walking distance of a senior center, library, grocery store and public transportation.
“It helps keep seniors youthful to be with younger people,” says Anderson, “and it gives younger people an appreciation of the value that older people bring to life, with their experience and knowledge and worldly wisdom.”
For more information about Westminster’s intergenerational affordable housing, con-tact Don Anderson at (714) 895-2860,
ext. 202.
 
Tips for Conducting Intergenerational Programs
• Involve stakeholders that represent each generation in planning.
• Design the service so each generation derives benefits.
• Ensure program flexibility to allow for various levels of participation and time commitment.
• Provide specific and appropriate training for all participants.
• Explore nontraditional opportunities in existing programs/services.
• Evaluate the program on a regular basis.
Source: Connecting Generations Tool Kit: Best Practices in Intergenerational Programming, United Generations Ontario, 2006