As a sort of sweet post-script to the three-part series Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale that I’ve offered to you over the past few days, I thought I’d share a little essay I wrote recently on fostering intergenerational friendships. It was just published in the July/August 2013 issue of Aging Today (Vol. xxxiv, no. 4), the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging. The entire issue is resplendent with wonderful articles on topics ranging from community- building, care giving, and intergenerational workplace issues, to other pieces on friendship in addition to my piece. And if you aren’t familiar with the American Society on Aging, check it out as the ASA is a really great professional organization for folks working in the field of Gerontology. You can find out more at www.asaging.org.
The title I originally gave to my essay was Singing the same song: Cultivating connections across generations and in its original form the essay exceeded the 800-word limit the editors gave me by about 256 words! (You aren’t really surprised, are you?) But –ta da!– below please find the final version, as published (thank you, kind and skillful editors!). And thank you to a new colleague, Barbara Meltzer, who invited me to write this essay and was instrumental in helping me talk through its contours (and thank you to my daughter’s aunt, Dr. Francoise Brun-Cottan, who connected me and Barbara in the first place!). I just love making inter-connections, don’t you?
Connecting across generations, finding a true friend
Fred was the angel of our neighborhood, a generous and friendly person. My friendship with Fred was one of truest and closest I’ve had. We were real friends, not just across-the-street neighbors. Fred was first generation Italian American, born in the 1920s, a devoted Catholic, barely graduating high school, veteran of WWII, a stonemason and a widower. I was half his age, a divorced mom with a Ph.D., and with quite a different intellectual, spiritual and political outlook. But we coalesced around organic gardening, home cooking and service to our communities, while beholding one another’s differences with openness and curiosity. We liked spending time together and prioritized doing so. During the growing season you’d find us together in Fred’s garden, puttering, doing chores, gathering ripe offerings.
I knew by how he walked from his house to his garden, months before his final decline, that something essential had changed, that we wouldn’t have another summer of gardening together. He knew by how I walked from my house to my car when I was feeling worn out from a day at work.
How Can Different Generations Befriend One Another?
I have worked in the field of gerontology more than half my life, beginning in my teenage years as a certified nursing assistant. For the past 20 years, I’ve gathered rich experiences not only about later life and adult aging, but also about the complexities of traveling through the life course. For quite some time I have been preoccupied with questions about intergenerational friendships, about how persons of different ages and generations might come together to foster real friendships. There isn’t much in the scholarly literature to inform such relationships.
My youngest friend is 7. Her mother was my former graduate student, and over the past decade we’ve become close friends and colleagues. How do I know that my best friend’s daughter and I are friends in our own right? Because we want to spend time together, and we have an unspoken understanding about things. Something wild in her responds to something wild in me.
Another friend is half my age. He came to the United States seeking safety. In his increasingly traditional native country he faced persecution because of his sexuality, religious beliefs and political affiliations. Not only are we at different points along the life course, but also we are about as different from one another as two humans can be. But, despite our many differences, we are on the same wavelength.
These examples are meant to bring out the idea that intergenerational friendships don’t have to be only between children and older adults in controlled, formal settings, like you’d find in a senior center or in intergenerational programming. They exist in all contexts, up and down the generations.
Friendship Requires Vulnerability and Openness
In my “mid-life” I have cultivated friendships with younger and older persons, persons I’ve met in my neighborhood, in my workplace, through happenstance. I’ve not always known how to be a true friend, by which I mean a friend who can be simultaneously vulnerable, curious, open and accepting of another. I came to all of this rather late, and most of what I know I learned from Fred.
We need to reflect on the assumptions we make when we emphasize similarities within, and differences between, generations. It isn’t that there aren’t generational differences (or “cohort effects”), but at least in part they are socially constructed and reductive, and get in the way of meaningful human-to-human interactions.
We should ditch our suspicions around younger and older persons being friends, especially if they are differently gendered or have different sexual orientations. And we need to suspend our suspicions around friendships that begin at work, or through other situations where we’re used to maintaining roles, positions and firm boundaries. Sometimes a relationship begins in one context, and then something new emerges (students and professors become friends; co-workers become friends; a neighbor becomes one of the best friends you’ve ever had).
Such exposure to others, especially if they are different than we are, is essential, starting in childhood and continuing throughout the life course, as mentioned in an article by Gilbert and Ricketts in Educational Gerontology (34:7, 2008; doi: 0.1080/03601270801900420). But exposure isn’t enough. There should be ongoing opportunities to be vulnerable and open ourselves up to discovering and connecting with people of all ages around both shared and different beliefs, concerns and aspirations. We need to risk communicating authentically about our lives, and show our real selves, discovering ways to be mutually supportive, according to Sophie Bowlby in her article in Social & Cultural Geography (12:6, 2011; doi: 10.1080/14649365. 2011.601264), and in Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics, edited by Margaret Urban Walker (1999, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield).
I still have more questions than answers. But I know this: Intergenerational friendships are an opportunity to bring our whole selves into relationship, to travel together hand-in-hand for whatever portion of the life course journey we are fortunate to share.