Intergenerational Day: How bringing different generations together can support our mental well-being

“You old bag!”

A man in wheelchair receives birthday cards from young children.

Herb receiving birthday cards from students in the iGen program.
Author provided

To many, this phrase might spark confusion or concern. But, for Herb, a long-term care resident of Saskatoon’s Sherbrooke Community Centre, it is his favourite phrase for teasing friends.

So, when he was gifted a t-shirt with those words on his 69th birthday, you couldn’t have seen a bigger smile on his face, nor heard more laughter from the friends who gave it to him — a class of 11- and 12-year-olds.

Herb’s connection with these young students is sincere and an important one to celebrate. Especially on June 1, which marks Intergenerational Day.

Established in 2010, Intergenerational Day was created to shrink the widening gap between the old and young, two generations that people believe differ wildly on a broad range of topics, from core moral values and political views to tastes in music.

Intergenerational Day serves as a reminder of what the old and young can learn from one another, as well as the benefits that come from connecting with others.

Intergenerational classroom

For the past three years, we have been researching the benefits of intergenerational connections. We have found that, just like Herb, most people not only feel a great deal of meaning in connecting with someone of a different age than themselves, but that these connections are associated with greater well-being.

In our research, we have focused our attention on a program called iGen: an intergenerational classroom in Saskatoon housed at the Sherbrooke Community Centre and created in partnership with educator Keri Albert.

Each year, 25 Grade 6 students complete the standard curriculum at Sherbrooke while interacting with the long-term care residents called Elders. The term “Elders” is used within the Eden Alternative Philosophy of long-term care to honour residents and the wisdom of their life experiences.

Every day, students connect with and support the Elders through various activities like reading, painting, playing games or simply chatting. These repeated interactions provide a comfortable opportunity for conversations and true friendships to grow.

The iGen program brings young students together with older adults living in long-term care to foster intergenerational connections.

Improving well-being

In our recently published study, we worked with Albert and Sherbrooke’s Communications leader, Eric Anderson, to survey 24 students in the iGen class of 2020. Students told us about their experiences and rated how it had impacted several aspects of their well-being, such as their energy, self-esteem, optimism and life satisfaction.

What did we find? First, students’ ratings were off the charts: Students said that their conversations, activities and experiences with the Elders were incredibly meaningful and rated their well-being at the top of our scales. In other words, these students were enjoying their experience in iGen and feeling happy about themselves.

A girl and an elderly man in a wheelchair pose for a photo together.

Frequent intergenerational interactions provide an opportunity for meaningful connections and friendships to grow.
Author provided

Second, we found that forming meaningful connections with care home residents in the program was associated with greater happiness. Students who reported having more meaningful intergenerational experiences also reported greater well-being on every single measure included in our surveys, such as greater life satisfaction and self-esteem.

These findings align with hundreds of studies indicating that social relationships are a key source of happiness.

How were students and Elders able to form meaningful relationships? Responses to our survey offer one insight: spending time together. In fact, the more time that students spent with the Elders, the more meaningful they reported their intergenerational experiences to be. This suggests that when generations interact through programs like iGen, they can reap the potential benefits of these relationships.

Building intergenerational connections may be especially timely now given widespread worries of loneliness for people of all ages, which may contribute to the young and elderly’s declining mental health.

One-in-five youth in Canada struggle with mental illness. While in the U.S. the number of youth reporting feelings of sadness and hopelessness has grown by 40 per cent in the last 10 years.

At the other end of the lifespan, many older adults struggle with their well-being, with roughly seven per cent of the world’s older population suffering from depression.

Yet, new data shows that even in 2022, after years of separation due to the pandemic, people reported greater feelings of social connection than loneliness. This is promising, because feeling socially connected is one of the strongest predictors of greater well-being. And it provides us with yet more reasons to create and celebrate social connections across generations.

At a time when the young and old are growing further apart, we show that programs like iGen may help youth form valuable relationships that can bridge social divides like age and ability, and possibly, leave us all happier for it.

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