New research shows that older adults play critical roles in the lives of young people, especially the most vulnerable.
When older people contribute to the well-being of young people — often through volunteering — it cultivates a sense a purpose and provides benefits to both the child and the adult, according to a researcher at Stanford University.
“Contrary to widespread beliefs that older populations consume resources that would otherwise go to youth, there is growing reason to think that older people may be just the resource children need,” said Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center for Longevity.
Previous research by Carstensen found that as people age, their brains actually improve in many ways, including in complex problem-solving and emotional skills.
“It is a huge loss for society not to offer such counsel and experience to others, especially young people,” she said.
The aging population has “distinctive qualities to meet the needs of youth,” she continued. “Older adults are exceptionally suited to meet these needs in part because they welcome meaningful, productive activity and engagement. They seek — and need — purpose in their lives.”
The older adults also benefit, experiencing emotional satisfaction in relationships with young people, she noted in a recent report, “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future.”
One way to foster these relationships is through volunteer service, which is associated with better physical health and cognitive performance for aging people, she said. It also benefits the children.
“Focusing volunteer efforts on young people improve their chances of success in life,” Carstensen said. “These mutual benefits are perhaps the most compelling reason for programs that connect young and old.”
The report documents widening socioeconomic and educational gaps among young people in the U.S., bringing to light a critical need for society to focus on ways to help vulnerable young men and women.
“A large proportion of youth lack the resources needed for success, their educational pathways and well-being impeded by poverty, perpetuating an ever deeper gulf between those who succeed in life and those who struggle,” the researchers stated in the report.
Young adults require emotional skills to succeed in life, according to Carstensen. These are the attitudes, behaviors, and strategies required to operate as a productive adult — and they are the types of skills and experiences that older adults have in abundance due to their life experiences.
“These skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and social interaction, influence social connections and sense of purpose. They are key to success in school and work, and they enable people to contribute meaningfully to society,” the researchers noted.
While parents matter, research shows that significant benefits exist for children who have an older adult mentor in addition to their parents, according to Carstensen.
Carstensen and her colleagues call for a national movement that encourages “intergenerational engagement” between the young and old alike. She acknowledged the challenge of such an undertaking, as it requires a change in the way people and society view young-old interactions and relationships.
“To date, older people do not volunteer at higher rates than younger adults,” she said. “Creating a social norm that encourages generativity — the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation — will require institutional and cultural change,” she said.