The Evidence on Elder Wisdom

Studio KIVISource: Studio KIVI

For most people, the approaching holiday season includes more time with 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.

Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier. Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions.

For starters, there is clear evidence that it is good for young people to spend time with older adults. One large analysis found that 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 programs 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 behind in language and reading. Researchers found that the visits improved the children’s perception of older adults and also 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.

Pass along your plan. Mobilize the other caregivers in your child's life - your spouse, grandparents, daycare worker, babysitter - to help reinforce the values and the behavior you want to instill. This includes everything from saying thank you and being kind to not whining.

“Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young,” Pillemer said.

The take home message is that 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!