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Having friends of all ages can be good for you and the people you spend time with. Use this four-step plan to add some youth to your social circle.
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Whether you have a few close pals that you call every week or are the social butterfly of your neighborhood, strong social connections are a pillar of good health and well-being. To get even more benefits from your friendships, you might want to branch out from your own age group.
“Resilience in later life is strengthened by having stimulating social connections across generations,” says Froma Walsh, Ph.D., co-director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Family Health. These intergenerational relationships can set the stage for learning, change and positive growth, she says.
They’re also a two-way street. You’re giving the younger person the chance to learn from your life experience. At the same time, being around younger people supports the mental flexibility that helps keep your mind sharp through your older years, says Carla Perissinotto, M.D., associate chief of geriatrics clinical programs at the University of California, San Francisco.
Companionship in all of its forms helps keeps people engaged, active and young in body and mind, says Dr. Perissinotto. What’s more, 92% of Americans say that intergenerational activities can help reduce loneliness, according to a national survey from Generations United.
Science backs up those beliefs: A pair of 2015 studies (one in Aging & Mental Health the other in Educational Gerontology) found that taking part in intergenerational programs decreases older adults’ risk of social isolation and loneliness. Having those bonds was also shown to increase their quality of life and well-being.
Ready to spark a new friendship with someone outside your age bracket? Use this four-step plan to help make new connections.
Step #1: Recognize What’s In It for You
Stepping outside of your comfort zone won’t be easy, acknowledges Walsh and Dr. Perissinotto. What may help is realizing what you stand to gain from befriending a younger person.
One big upside of bridging the age gap is that younger people can help you broaden your perspective, says Walsh. It can get you out of the “me” mindset and help foster more empathy and compassion for others.
Another plus: Spending time with younger people is a great opportunity for you to “share your knowledge, abilities and experience and feel valued by your juniors,” says Walsh. You’ll also be wiping out ageist attitudes that say elders are out of touch. (Which you know is not true.)
Think of this new friendship as a gift to both of you, she adds. “There are beautiful traditions of oral histories that we miss out on by not having intergenerational relationships. It’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “It’s enriching for young people and gives them a new perspective on their own lives.”
Step #2: Identify the Younger People You Already Know
In many families and cultures, elders have a very special place in the family. “Young people in these communities value elders, hold them in high esteem and turn to them for their wisdom and perspectives from their life experience,” says Walsh.
If that’s not your situation, she admits, fostering new relationships among younger adults or even kids whom you might not interact with regularly will take a little effort. Young people need you, too, says Walsh, but when society keeps elders and youth apart (as is common in many neighborhoods) these natural and needed friendships don’t form easily.
That’s where today’s challenge comes in, because it’s absolutely worth it to seek out these connections. Walsh suggests writing up a short list of the younger people in your life. Maybe that’s a grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor. It could also be a younger adult from your church, club or volunteer group.
Step #3: Brainstorm Your Outreach
With your list in hand, think of different ways you can reach out to them. If you know of things you already have in common, that’s a great starting point. For example, if you regularly spot a younger neighbor tending to their garden, you might venture over and strike up a conversation about what they’re planting, or, yes, the weather — always a no-fail icebreaker. (Remember to be mindful about keeping at least 6 feet of space between the two of you and wear your face mask.)
If you don’t know the person very well, try paying them a compliment and pairing that with a question. Even during the pandemic, small talk can still be an important part of your day. Let’s say there’s a young adult in your building that you often run into and exchange pleasantries with. The next time you see them, try saying something as simple as Your hat is really fun. Did you pick it up on a special vacation?
What you’re doing is showing the other person that you’re interested in them and are a good listener. Unless they’re in a hurry, chances are they’ll respond with a few questions of their own. Best of all, you can have these kinds of short talks while sticking to current safety measures.
Of course, face-to-face encounters aren’t your only option. Don’t discount these other ways to reach out to younger people with whom you already have an established connection:
- Call them on the phone
- Send a text to say hi
- Start a video chat (if you have the necessary technology)
- Write an email
- Mail a letter or postcard
Step #4: Think Outside Your Circle
The pandemic has made it challenging to connect with others, and many older adults are feeling isolated, says Dr. Perissinotto. Usual outlets like playing chess in a park, taking a walk together, attending family reunions and having young people visit assisted living facilities or senior communities are on pause for now. But it is still possible to connect. Some creativity may be in order to keep physically distanced.
Can’t think of anyone younger in your close social or family circle? That’s OK; there are national organizations that can help pair you with a younger person who’s also interested in friendship.
Some of these groups take steps to help you find a good “match.” For example, they might ask you to fill out a brief questionnaire about your interests and preferred language. Then they’ll pair you with a teen or young adult and help arrange on-going video chats, phone calls, email exchanges or old-fashioned letter writing.
If you’re struggling with technology, which is so important for staying connected in the current pandemic, there are even groups that can help pair you with a tech-savvy youth. Your young mentor can answer your questions and help you get online, learn how to open a social media account or take part in a video call.
To find programs near you, try typing “intergenerational programs near me” into your internet search bar. Your local librarian or community center may also be able to help you find an intergenerational program that’s a good fit for you.
Do Your Health a Favor
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