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Judy Santamaria Headshot

Bridging the Generation Gap in Family Caregiving

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We often refer to the difficulties faced by the "sandwich generation" -- those in their 40s and 50s who find themselves caring for elderly family members (usually parents) while they still have responsibility for children at home. Worrying about driving your elderly mom to the doctor can be especially stressful when you also feel the need to cook a healthy meal for your growing teen. While no one can diminish the stresses that a family caregiver feels when they are caring for both older and younger family members, we should also recognize the opportunities that can arise when multiple generations in a family share their lives.

Many studies have shown the benefits of intergenerational interactions not only for young people but also for seniors. Older adults who are involved in intergenerational activities feel happier than other older adults. Relationships with younger people can give seniors a sense of purpose, especially since they're in the period of life where many gain satisfaction from their ability to give back. For children and teens, interacting with older adults, such as grandparents, helps them understand and later accept the process of aging. It also strengthens emotional and social intelligence and helps kids acquire new skills and knowledge.

At the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), where I work, attendees at an adult day center in Queens have been participating in an intergenerational program with local troops of Girl and Boy Scouts. In this program, which started in 2006, scouts visit the seniors in the day center and do activities to keep the seniors cognitively and socially engaged, from staging an interactive talent show to working on crafts and community service projects to playing word games and other activities that reinforce cognition and social interaction. They also work together to create activity kits that are delivered to homebound seniors who can't come to the center. According to social worker Sherri Zabko-McGuire, LMSW, CCM, the program has shown real benefits for the older adults, who get a sense of purpose through working with the kids, but also for the scouts, who have grown close to their senior friends and truly look forward to visiting them each time.

"It's a win-win situation," says Zabko. "The seniors get a chance to give back, and the kids learn that the world is bigger than themselves. And the seniors provide instant gratification for the kids, as they are so complimentary of their efforts; it really boosts the children's self-esteem."

At home, this kind of positive interaction between grandparents and grandchildren is possible too, providing benefits for both and easing some of the burdens commonly faced by family caregivers. Keep in mind, though, that if the different generations in your family are not in the habit of interacting, it may take a little longer to get things started. Just remember to allow time for everyone to adjust their comfort levels. Here's a seven-step plan for bridging the generation gap for family caregivers.

1. First, explain separately to both your kids and your parents the benefits of getting them to spend more time together, and outline your goals. Chances are your senior will like the idea but will be wary about whether it can work. Younger children, luckily, are usually very receptive to spending more time with a grandparent or a great-aunt or -uncle. If your child is a teen, he or she may resist at first. They may fear that they won't know what to talk about or have anything in common. Assure them that there will be no pressure to interact, but instead plan activities they can do together.

2. Next, think about things the two generations can do together that will be easy for both and take some pressure off you. Planning ahead will ease their interactions and give you a chance to plan for some time to yourself.

3. Recognize limitations. If an elderly person has physical disabilities, suggest activities such as doing puzzles, playing board games, or preparing a meal or dessert. Teens in particular may be interested in history and may enjoy making a family tree, writing a family cookbook, or making a video of the family member's life. Reading aloud to an elder can improve a child's vocabulary and be very entertaining and engaging for an aging relative.

4. If your care recipient has dementia, it may be harder for your child to interact, and you shouldn't depend on a young person to keep an elder safe. But there are still things they can do together, such as looking at old photos, singing songs, or playing with a pet -- a quick visit from a neighbor's pet can be truly uplifting. Even gardening, in which a senior family member directs the activities of the younger person, can be a great common ground.

5. While a senior can teach a younger person many things, remember that a youngster can also have a lot to share. Computer skills, for example, often come very easily to kids, and the things they can teach -- such as how to store and look at photos, how to do Internet searches, and how to use email -- can open up a whole new life for a senior.

6. Utilize your time away from caregiving wisely, and follow up to ensure that your family members are actually engaging with one another in a positive way. If that's the case, you can run errands, take a walk or make some phone calls. You will feel accomplished, and leaving family members on their own will enable them to form valuable bonds.

7. Finally, remember that every intergenerational relationship will be unique. Don't set your initial expectations too high, and be willing to modify your goals as you see what works and what doesn't. Have patience, and don't give up trying to get the two generations to connect.

Intergenerational relationships can provide many benefits to both seniors and young people and can give you, the family caregiver, some greatly needed peace of mind -- even joy -- as you watch the relationship develop and grow.