11/14/2013 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Home Care Bridging Generations: Invite a Young Person to Visit

I recently spoke with a remarkable high school senior, Victoria McGuire, who for the last six years has brought her Girl Scout troop to a Queens adult day center to visit with elders and engage them in conversation and projects. These intergenerational visits have fostered relationships between people separated by six or seven decades, brought enormous joy into the lives of elders, and taught young people the value and wisdom of age.

I've also noticed similar benefits when our younger home health aides provide companionship and care for homebound clients in their 70s, 80s, 90s or even 100s. The creativity, inquisitiveness and new perspective can turn out to be just what an older person needs to break out of a deepening sense of isolation.

The conversation with Victoria and encounters with some of the younger aides I work with demonstrate how bright a light young people can be in the lives of those who cannot get out and are limited in their daily activities. But the proposition can be daunting at times to both young and older people, who may feel that the gap is so wide they won't be able to bridge it.

"What will we do? What will we talk about? What if I do or say the wrong thing?" they wonder.

Often when we start something new and different, questions like these tend to pop up. But, whether you are limited by age and mobility or are caring for someone who is, the rewards of an intergenerational relationship can be enormous. With a little personal creativity you can plan a wonderful visit that bridges the generation gap and won't soon be forgotten.

The guidelines Victoria developed for her projects (with help from a licensed social worker) are certainly worth sharing here.

Plan Hands-on Activities

Full-immersion craft projects make connecting easy, help keep the fingers and mind nimble, and make the time fly. A few suggestions:

  • Plan crafts that can be used or displayed safely, such as decorating magnetic frames for the refrigerator.
  • Work on a scrap book together, collecting photographs and magazines beforehand
  • Plant flowers or herbs in a planter. Or come armed with dried flowers and make a lasting arrangement.
  • Do word or number games together, such as word searches, crossword puzzles or sudoku

Tell Stories

Stories are a natural way to connect the generations. To kick-start stories, have a few prompting questions on hand, such as:

  • Each day after school, I like/liked to ______.
  • My favorite subject in school is/was __________, because _____________.
  • When my best friends and I get/got together, this is the first thing we do/did: __________.
  • The time I was most scared (or happy, or sad) was when _______________.
  • The best advice I ever got (or gave) was ______________.
  • My favorite time period (besides now) is __________ (This was a conversation starter for Victoria, who loves all things Elvis -- which prompted unforgettable stories from and an enduring friendship with an octogenarian nicknamed Hollywood.)

Take Turns Reading
Beforehand, the elder and the young person can choose a favorite piece of writing -- whether from a book, the newspaper, an article online, the Bible, a dog-eared essay, or even a cookbook. Reading aloud to one another creates a shared experience and opens a window into new worlds.

Make Music
If the younger person plays an instrument, make it part of the visit. A few songs on the violin or guitar will surely bring joy to the senior, and can boost self-esteem and encourage a passion in the budding musician. In Victoria's group, one particularly shy Girl Scout was inspired to pursue singing as a hobby -- which she will continue in college -- when one of the seniors raved about how well she sang.

An iPod or iPad can bring people together through music too. Identify and download favorite songs from across the generations. Play, listen, discuss, repeat.

Music can encourage time travel, perhaps even a little dancing -- good for the body and good for the soul. (There has been much research documenting music's ability to reduce anxiety and depression, increase quality of life for end-of-life patients, and even help release dementia patients from a fog.)

So invite a young person over -- a grandchild, a favorite niece, the neighbor's child (with permission, of course), or even a volunteer from your church or temple -- and discover the joy of building your own bridges across generations.