Inter-Generational Arts Engagement Programs Promote Understanding, Empathy

We love inter-generational workshops as tools for bringing diverse groups together, and for helping develop new appreciation, trust and respect for others.  Younger generations have much to learn from their elders, but modern life offers them fewer and fewer opportunities to experience meaningful interactions with elders.  

A September 2017 article by  The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” describes some very disheartening social findings on how technology’s pervasiveness effects young people in the critical years of their development:

“One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.””

The article also describes an increase in depression and suicide among teens, with cell phones cited as the main cause:

“The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.”

Finally, the findings suggest: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that doesn’t involve a screen.

Our solution: Pair teens with elders and lead them in creating something together.  This can be in the form of singing, dancing (with appropriate safety considerations in mind), or creating songs, stories or poetry together. Teens and elders can be paired off for visual arts workshops to create art side-by-side, or  they can participate in teambuilding exercises based on the dynamic arts genres of drama and improv.

We use the arts to help bridge the gaps which exist between generations, cultures, educational and socio-economic levels.  Meaningful conversations about who we are, where we’re from, and what matters most to us, consistently emerge from arts engagement.  Arts can also level the playing field, bypassing weaknesses and enhancing people’s strengths.   We know of one elder who took up painting after his dementia diagnosis, and went on to become quite a proficient artist.  And we know of numerous elders who, although they can no longer speak well, still enjoy singing the songs of their youth.

Elders and young children love the attention each affords the other.  And teenagers are often quite surprised by how good it feels to receive and give the gift of undivided attentiveness.  Encounters between human beings who are six, seven or eight decades apart can be fascinating for both parties.  Members of a group of young performers who live with disabilities commented that they felt something new – completely unconditional love – from nursing home residents they had the opportunity to interact with.  It’s amazing to see elders positively light up when they’re in a room with young people.

Tidewater Arts Outreach offers workshops to help children, teens and young adults understand why it’s important to incorporate serving elders into their lives.  TAO teaches about empathy and the aging process, what to say/what not to say, how to handle certain situations and conversations, why it’s good to have an intermediary adult around, and much more.  Kids’ eyes and hearts are opened; they embrace this unique opportunity.  Hearts are lifted, people are inspired, bonds are forged and new insights are formed.  The arts can heal and build community in marvelous ways.  Once a favorable environment has been created, it’s wonderful to see the processes of creative engagement and inter-generational socialization unfold.  The results of TAO’s inter-generational arts programs have been extremely positive – our  survey scores bear this evidence.  Let’s continue making these promises come true, and create enduring change in our culture – together!