May 12

Intergenerational Isolation

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Three of us, each from a different generation, recently tried to understand life a little better by looking backwards to determine why there seems to be so much isolation between generations. We met to plan ways to commemorate Intergenerational Week. Our meeting at a small table in the Palo Alto Café must have seemed unusual to outside observers. A woman whose life has spanned much of the last century, a middle-aged man and a teenage girl sharing a meal used to be unexceptional. No longer. People notice. We notice people noticing.

It is so unusual that the separateness of our generations has a name: intergenerational isolation. How did it become so prevalent? Did we develop different goals? Did aspects of our relationships become unhealthy? Perhaps intergenerational isolation has worsened because we spend so much of our lives rushing forward. We seldom discuss the past with other generations, let alone understand it. We drive ourselves through our busy schedules and oftentimes alienate other generations in the process. Seniors go too slowly to suit teenagers. Teenagers sometimes impatiently, even rudely, let seniors know they are in the way. Middle-aged persons may move too slowly for teenagers but too quickly for seniors. But traveling through life at different paces is just part of the problem. Each generation believes our priorities are the most important. We also refuse to appreciate that high levels of stress can exist for every generation — failing health for seniors, financial pressures for middle-aged parents, or the pressures on teenagers to get good grades and into the best college.

We do not acknowledge that each stage of life creates its own sense of urgency. Seniors may be driven by the urge to impart wisdom to younger generations, to bring their families together as often as possible, or to visit as many new places as possible before time runs out. Parents struggle with determining whether to let their children have more freedom or to keep them on a tight rein. Teenagers fight to understand themselves, life, love and success. But how fast this has happened. Within a few generations the ways we communicate, spend our time, move about and entertain ourselves have dramatically changed. Despite these obstacles our mini intergenerational lunch group clicked. Perhaps being conscious of age separations made us try harder. More likely, because we realized we are more similar than dissimilar we recognized we could learn from each other.

Sharing reminiscences helped bring us together. We recalled Sundays generations ago when families attended church, relaxed and cooked, played or worked together. The three of us resolved to make Intergenerational Week a starting point for improving intergenerational relations for others. Seeing the benefits for individuals and the community as a whole is easy. But how to do it?

Some neighborhood associations already sponsor intergenerational events, such as block parties. They can try to develop more such events. Organizations, such as Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness (PAGE), seek to improve community communication through town-hall meetings. They can try even harder to get all generations to attend. Teenagers and parents can visit senior centers; seniors and parents can volunteer at schools; and all generations can attend activities attended by other generations: school concerts, sports activities and community events.

Intergenerational Week is observed internationally. We want this to be an event observed, and celebrated, locally. Our schools, senior centers, city leaders, neighborhood associations, Youth Community Service, and the media are involved in planning various activities centered on the theme of togetherness. “Wisdom sharing,” a dialogue between teenagers, the middle aged and seniors, will occur at senior centers such as Stevenson House, Avenidas, the La Comida lunch program, and with Barron Park Seniors. We do not have to run one another down as we race through life. We all, whatever age, can open a conversation, share a meal at a local café, try to understand and appreciate our similarities and differences, and recognize that members of each generation can lead stressful lives.
We can look backwards together and in doing so help create a richer life forwards for all of us.