Rosellen’s parents moved from Manhattan to West Palm Beach, Florida when the New York air became difficult for my mother-in-law to breathe. Their new home, Century Village, was a community of perhaps ten thousand retirees, all living in similar one- or two-bedroom apartments. It is telling that in preparing their wills, they asked each of their three children if they would like to inherit the Century Village apartment, and they all declined. What follows is an explanation for at least our decision.
Although I was happy to visit Blossom and Dave and give them a chance to spend time with their grandchildren, I found the community in which they chose to spend their last years a disturbing place. There was something unnatural about a world that consisted entirely of people of a certain age, an arrangement that existed nowhere else in the natural world outside of nursing homes. When we took our daughters to the very inviting pool near their grandparents’ apartment, they were often greeted with disapproving looks, which conveyed the message that they were not welcome. It was as if the residents felt that they had done their stint with kids and now wished to be spared the noisy energy they brought to their serene lives. Most residents of Century Village preferred to be surrounded only by people of similar ages.
In other cultures, the elders remain in the heart of the community and the family. In fact, their children and grandchildren are likely to turn to them for their advice and their accumulated wisdom. When they are no longer able to engage with the younger generations, they are protected and cared for until their death. We have gone a different route – isolating the aging and warehousing them in settings that fit their means, but always in situations that cut them off from the vibrancy of a mixed-age population, wrestling with the unique problems that beset people at different stages of their lives. Some elders may prefer that separation in their declining years, but for many others it is forced on them and deprives them of the stimulation they hunger for. That deprivation is a proven path to earlier decline and death. I’m going from my gut here, but I’m guessing that there is data somewhere to support my position.
When Rosellen and I were in our late thirties, we befriended a couple who lived nearby. They were accomplished artists in their early seventies. To our surprise, they expressed gratitude for our willingness to see them as friends despite our age differences. We felt that we were the grateful ones, beneficiaries of the wisdom derived from the richness of their lived lives. In this case we were the younger partners in an intergenerational friendship, but we’ve been fortunate enough at every stage of our lives to have access to friendships with people across a wide age range.
My thinking about our intergenerational friendships was stimulated by an off-hand comment by a friend (roughly in our age group) that he regretted the absence of the stimulation of younger friends and was thinking about ways to remedy that situation. It made me realize how fortunate Rosellen and I have been to have friendships with people of many different ages which were not the result of any conscious effort on our part but were an organic outgrowth of the circumstances of our work and of the professional and religious affiliations we had chosen.
Rosellen and I have always been, among other things, teachers. It’s work that automatically thrusts you into the lives of people younger than you. When our audience has been undergraduates and graduate students, we’ve become immersed in the complexities presented by their current stage of life. Many of these connections have grown into enduring friendships which somehow manage over time to level the differences in our ages. Younger children make mountains out of the mole hill of a year’s age difference. As the age clock ticks on, differences of two or three decades sometimes evaporate and place us on equal footing with our younger colleagues. For me, this is even the case for students I taught in middle school who now have children older than they were when I taught them. It’s nothing less than exciting to be along for the ride as they tackle issues of marriage, professional choice, childbearing and child rearing, wrestling with health and financial challenges. As our own worlds constrict and many life choices are now in the rearview mirror, we draw energy from our involvement with the lives of others.
Our religious community includes people whose ages span almost four decades, yet friendships don’t respect those age boundaries. We have friends in their forties and friends like us in their 80s and we value them equally. It is true that we also find comfort in our friendships with peers who are beset by similar health problems, end of life decisions, relationships with adult children and grandchildren. Although our younger friends educate us about the ever-evolving shifts in cultural trends, it’s sometimes a relief to stay in our own lane musically and artistically. It’s the music that has bedeviled me even when the age difference between me and my young friends was a lot smaller. I feel lost and excluded by contemporary musical tastes and even my own daughters can’t help me over that hurdle. This is a real handicap because music is such a strong part of many younger people’s identities.
But music aside, our intergenerational friendships are a critical antidote to the aspects of aging that can drag you down and lead you to withdraw. Americans need more structured opportunities for the generations to engage with each other. It strikes me that the decline in church attendance closes off one important path to intergenerational relations that has always existed for a large portion of our population. Where are the replacements? The small but growing housing arrangements that mix people of different ages is the kind of thing I’m thinking about.
I should note here that despite our age, the pleasure we derive from intergenerational relationships is not only with people younger than us but with friends in their 90s. They are a source of inspiration and hope, models of a way forward that can be anything but bleak and sterile. Some are still creating art, others are fully engaged in reading, conversation and with the troubling politics of our time.
There’s no question that racial segregation remains one of the greatest and most damaging problems in our society, but age segregation also deprives us of another source of richness that could make our lives more engaging and stimulating. We need to putthaton the radar of those who think about how to tackle the issues that make us less human, less whole.