Bonds between youth, seniors can boost mental health, says Health Sciences prof

For young adults experiencing loneliness or isolation, Pauli Gardner points to a source of mental health support that may not be immediately obvious.

“Older adults and students have so much in common, which is unanticipated,” says the Brock University Associate Professor of Health Sciences.

This is a key finding of Through Their Eyes, an intergenerational service-learning project Gardner created and housed within the undergraduate Health Sciences course “Developing Healthy Communities.”

In its ninth year, the project matches Brock University students with older adult residents to study infrastructure, housing, social supports and other features that make a community “age-friendly.”

With support from Niagara Regional Housing, students in the course are paired with older adults living in a seniors’ residence. The students interview their participants to assess the age-friendliness of a neighbourhood from seniors’ perspectives.

As part of the project, students write a reflexive journal detailing their thoughts, feelings and experiences as they interact with their partners.

Of the themes that emerge from the interviews and diaries, Gardner says one of the most striking is the mutual discovery of similarities.

“For example, who rides the bus in the city? It’s students and older adults,” says Gardner.

“They are both really concerned about finances and live on fixed incomes,” Gardner says. “Both have moved into new spaces, like a university residence or a seniors’ residence and have had to make new friends.”

These and other similarities create bonds between the generations that lead to conversations and relationships in which each side feels listened to, says Gardner, adding that youth frequently feel they’re not being listed to by their parents, and older adults, by their children.

Gardner published these and other findings in a 2019 paper in the journal Educational Gerontology.

Gardner says most research on intergenerational programs has focused on older adults’ perspectives and find these interactions can reduce social isolation for the older person. But it’s clear from this project that students’ connectiveness is also boosted through being with older adults, they say.

Ainslee Bissette, a fourth-year Public Health undergraduate student who participated in the program last term, says she had long-running anxieties about aging, particularly about the loss of freedom and mobility.

Her older adult research partner, Paul, shared with her the many volunteer and social activities he was involved in, which reduced her anxiety.

“He made me realize that being young at heart is actually a true thing, because as long as you are able to grow within your community and appreciate all that it has to offer, it’s going to give back to you in the best way possible,” says Bissette. “As we age, even though things are lost, things are also gained and I feel like that’s not something that’s highlighted enough.”

Like in the case of Bissette’s experience, students — and older adults — become inspired by one another’s lives, accomplishments and resilience, says Gardner.

The older adults report feelings of pride in the students, which boosts students’ self-esteem and motivates them to build connections with other older adults in their families and communities, says Gardner.

“And doing these and other things makes young people feel good about themselves,” says Gardner. “There’s an incredible ripple effect to this that goes far beyond the program itself.”

Fourth-year Public Health student Renee Leung says her experience working with seniors through the project opened her eyes. It also helped her to develop empathy for her parents and improve her relationship with them.

“We don’t realize that we’re aging every day and I continuously forget that for my parents, it’s their first time being old,” she says.

Gardner says the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified mental health concerns for both young and older adults. Connecting with others is key to feeling a greater sense of belonging, value and having a role to play in building community.

“There’s health-promoting superpowers in intergenerational programming,” says Gardner.

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