Research shows many benefits to nurturing intergenerational human connection

Posted at 1:23 PM, Jul 04, 2022

Phillys Rosendahl has loved painting ever since she was young. In the thick of the pandemic, she says her isolation and loneliness made it hard to pick up a paintbrush.

"I couldn't because I just I was bordering on being depressed, which I'm sure a lot of people were," Rosendahl said.

Now she's part of a program at her assisted living facility called Portrait Pals, facilitated by The Kindness Empire, a business with a mission to nurture human connection so people feel inspired to be kind to themselves and others. Tonya Quinn is The Kindness Empire's founder and CEO.

"The Kindness Empire is a national platform offering programs that connect people from very different communities," Quinn said.

Portrait Pals connects seniors with children. They spend four weeks painting a portrait of each other. The kids are now on summer break, but Phillys Rosendahl was able to share many details about the experience.

"Saige was her name, and she just looked very outgoing," Rosendahl said about her portrait pal. "She looks like she could do anything in the world."

She says she felt a strong connection to Saige and her interaction gave her a sense of purpose and encouragement.

"It's the younger generation that keeps me alive and that keeps me active," Rosendahl said

Karl Pillemer is a Human Development Professor at Cornell University. He researches the importance of intergenerational connections.

"How do we link the generations in valuable and productive ways so that the energy of young people and the accumulated life wisdom of older people can complement one another and come together and meet each other's needs," Pillemer said.

Pillemer says we're in the middle of a dangerous human experiment.

"For the first time in history, most young people have almost no contact with older people outside of intermittent connections in their own family," Pillemer said. "So our society is dramatically segregated. And that's why folks like us are trying to develop programs that help to bring them together in more meaningful ways."

However, it's not too late to make a change. Pillemer helped start the Cornell Crisis Advice Project. It's an online space that offers elder wisdom for challenging times.

"There are people still alive today whose families were affected by the 1918 pandemic and have memories of the aftermath of that," Pillemer said. "Getting that experience transfer gives younger people a kind of living perspective that they would never otherwise get."

Pillemer says the interaction between different generations can clear up false stereotypes, encourage critical thinking, and help young people prepare for their own aging.

"A key piece of advice older people have for getting through a crisis like the pandemic is to be generous," Pillemer said. "People who got through it well and who came through very severe problems in their childhood or youth, remember generosity. So people in the Great Depression remember people sharing what little they had with other people."

Through the Portrait Pals program, the seniors and kids were able to share their time, talent, and love, realizing they had more in common than they originally thought.

"We all have the same concerns," Rosendahl said. "We all want to be heard. We want to be perceived as being strong."

After all, age is just a number.

"You know, we're all young at heart and we're just stuck in old bodies," Rosendahl said.