The Evidence on Elder Wisdom

For most people, the approaching holiday season includes more time with the extended family, including the elder generation.

Unfortunately, older adults are often diminished in the popular media and by society as a whole; they are frequently portrayed as sick, frail, unproductive and behind-the-times. Yet there’s an expansive body of evidence that demonstrates the benefits of older adults’ wisdom and the value of fostering communication across generations.

First, over the course of human history, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. Technology has come a long way over the past 200 years, so it’s easy to forget that elder wisdom used to be essential.

In recent times, most of the research about intergenerational communication occurs within formal programs, such as including older adults in public schools or having youth visit assisted living facilities. Nevertheless, you can apply many of the lessons of this research to your own family gatherings.

For starters, there is clear evidence that it is good for young people to spend time with older adults. One large analysis found youth who participated in intergenerational programs showed more respect toward older adults, less anxiety and higher self-esteem.

Research also shows that interacting with younger people is good for older adults. A systematic review found that older adults who participated in intergenerational program were likely to experience more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem and fewer symptoms of depression.

Interactions can be positive even when an older adult is experiencing memory or cognitive problems. A large systematic review demonstrates benefits for the adult with dementia as well as the children who interact with them. Another small study involved older adults with mild dementia who visited school children who were behind in language and reading. Researchers found that visits improve the children’s perception of older adults and also helped to improve their reading skills.

What’s the best way to encourage positive interactions?

Having children teach computer or video games to the older generations can be a fun way to spend time together. A small study found that intergenerational  game play can help family members to bond. The biggest challenge that participants faced was explaining game rules and mechanisms using words understandable to elder family members.

Another idea is to encourage youth to ask older family members for their advice about life. Gerontologist Karl Pillemer, former director of the Bronfenbrenner Center on Translational Research, began a formal project that involved youth interviewing older adults in their community to hear their advice about life. (Pillemer wrote two books himself based on conducting these same types of interviews.) The idea is that youth ask older adults specific questions about the lessons they learned from their life experiences.

The take home message: Time with older relatives is one of the true gifts of the holiday season. Make the most of it by spending time with the older generation, and even asking for their advice!

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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