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With the rise of COVID-19, the world has been held victim to an incredibly dangerous and lethal virus that has consequently left many stuck at home wondering when everything will return to normal — only to slowly realize that there may now be a new “normal.”

Simultaneously, the current political climate in the United States has laid bare the issues of racism and discrimination that persist in places ranging from the highest levels of government to the local services we rely upon for assistance and support. Recent demonstrations surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others at the hands of police officers highlight how people from all walks of life want to voice their deepest concerns and make a difference.

At the same time, the global aging pyramid continues to shift into new and uncharted territory, where governments and public services must now evaluate how to assist the increasing population of older adults.

In the midst of all of this, USC experts and students say intergenerational discussions are a powerful tool in a learning process that will help determine what our new normal looks like today and going forward.

Overcoming Ageism

In a time when intergenerational differences can quickly fuel the flames of conflict, many have taken advantage of unhealthy racial and age-related discourse, pitting older and younger generations against one another and relying on stereotypes to drive their story forward.

One prominent narrative deals with the handling of the current climate-change crisis and the ever-shortening time frame to put in place the proper measures to avoid a global catastrophe. On one hand, younger adults may be under the presumption that voting trends among older adults are influenced by their lack of care for the future, given that older people will not have to live with the further consequences of global warming. Older adults, on the other hand, may believe that younger generations have no concern for them in the first place and vote solely out of self-interest.

Ageism, described as the “most socially accepted form of prejudice” by the World Health Organization, presents another factor that needs to be unpacked in order for meaningful discussions to take place.

While currently being tackled on academic and health care fronts, prejudice against older adults in the media has become more distinct during election seasons. Ageist stereotypes highlighting conservative values of older adults can easily dissuade younger generations from participating in conversations altogether. Additionally, some older adults may perceive millennials and members of Generation Z as being lazy, spoiled or egotistical, given the digital revolution and its prompting of an easier lifestyle. For instance, a “Dear Young People” ad that ran prior to the midterm elections in 2018 played upon a provocative and negative portrayal of older adults, showing their supposed lack of concern about gun control, climate change and other topical political issues adversely affecting the United States. 

While the advertisement acted as an eye-opening satirical warning, it’s important for all generations to properly dissect the implicit biases that are present throughout the lifespan.

“Older adults have formed many of their opinions and attitudes in a different social time, when they may not have had much interaction with people of color and where there was not much time given to the narrative of racism and the impacts it has,” says Paul Nash, instructional associate professor of gerontology. “This does not mean that all older people are racist, but what it does mean is that attitudes are formed based on exposure and experience. These are changing and will continue to evolve, which makes it easier for those who have grown up in that period of change to appreciate the different perspectives.”

Many in the gerontology community look to opportunities for intergenerational discussions to be a source of knowledge and understanding.

“Surrounding the current Black Lives Matter movement, my family has been very receptive to the issues going on, but there have been many instances where I have found some opinions of theirs that do not generally hold well nowadays,” says Nilay Desai, a sophomore in human development and aging at the Leonard Davis School. “So my cousins and I have sat down and had civil discussions where we have been able to help [older family members] understand the issues.”

Teaching Each Other

At their core, intergenerational discussions are conversations between individuals. Sharing experiences across generations can be an incredibly powerful — and poignant — experience.

“Having intergenerational discussions allows the exchange of diverse ideas from both parties and opportunities for collaboration in activism,” says USC Leonard Davis PhD in gerontology candidate Liz Avent. “Both parties can provide new perspectives and ideas. Intergenerational discussion can decrease ageism and generalizations and break stereotypes.”

Intergenerational discussions nowadays can feel like a political minefield, and deciding the right time and place can be an equally stressful process. Avent emphasized that despite varying levels of racial allyship and exposure among the different generations, these conversations can be fruitful and can encourage slow yet beneficial change.

“It’s important to choose the correct words and adjust your framing with those who may be reluctant in changing their opinion … for example, use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements, because no one wants to feel like they are wrong or something is wrong with them,” Avent says. “However, it’s important to pick your battles and preserve your energy and mental health. Know when it’s time to end the discussion and accept that this person will not change their opinion on the issue.”

This summer, USC students and faculty and members of the USC Emeriti Center engaged in timely conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and today’s political climate. Titled “An Intergenerational Perspective of What Matters,” the Zoom discussion covered a variety of topics, from understanding hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #DefundthePolice all the way to reflecting on protests and demonstrations of the past.

Janette Brown, assistant vice provost at the USC Emeriti Center and adjunct professor at the Leonard Davis School, allows her student workers to organize discussions about the current political climate with retired and current faculty and staff members, parents of students, and former Trojans.

“It has been enlightening to watch the lightbulb go on with students and with retirees as they connect with one another and share,” Brown says. “They realize how similar they are. They have the same feelings, thoughts and worries. The more they share, the more they realize that both young and old can support one another in different ways.”

Younger people — the digital natives — bring plenty of support and knowledge to the table. During the COVID crisis, the USC Student Gerontology Association — which has also made a commitment to prioritize and work with businesses whose owners are Black, Indigenous and People of Color — has created and maintained an intergenerational phone chain and held an online food drive for older adults who are ill. At the Emeriti Center, student workers have also presented on issues such as digital security, in addition to teaching older adults how to navigate social media properly—digesting terminology with a clear knowledge of what controversial hashtags truly mean, along with learning to use food delivery apps.

Similarly, older adults eagerly provide personal testimony and experiences of advocacy movements from the past, shining a light not only on how history repeats itself, but also on improvements that have been made over time.

“[Older adults] can share experiences of what has worked, so that strategies can be built upon. Younger people have their role, too,” Nash says. “It is much easier now than ever before to get information on the internet. Younger people can engage with older people in dialogue and share experiences. Do it in a supportive and not preachy way, and this is when reciprocal learning is at its best.”

Courtney Hutchinson, a senior in health and human sciences and a student worker with the Emeriti Center, says that while you can’t force someone to view resources or watch videos online, “[If someone doesn’t] understand something … being able to provide people easy access to learn is a good first step in having that conversation. With COVID, while it obviously has a whole host of negative effects, it has really enlightened older adults who may have not been using technology that much. It has forced older adults to learn how to use some of it … which has been really beneficial.”

From a scientific and statistical standpoint, intergenerational programs that, by definition, should be beneficial to older adults and youth have been proven to improve outcomes for participants, says PhD in gerontology candidate Carly Roman.

Although past research has overwhelmingly focused on younger participants’ improved attitudes toward aging as a result of intergenerational programming, a 2019 literature review highlighted the benefits for older adults in these intergenerational connections. In addition to improved well-being, older adults have been able to express generativity—the feeling of contributing meaningfully to the well-being of others—and have experienced more positive views toward children, Roman explains.

Getting Involved, Together

Learning from prior movements — such as Seneca Falls, Stonewall and Los Angeles—and hearing the narrative from older adults provide for a vast pool of knowledge and understanding for everyone, particularly younger generations organizing and participating in advocacy.

“I was very active in the late sixties and early seventies, and in fact led the medical component to the demonstrations in Washington against the Vietnam War,” says Edward Schneider, dean emeritus of the USC Leonard Davis School and a professor of gerontology, medicine and biological sciences. “My kids are all aware of that, and I think that they want to carry the torch and do what’s right now. I’m not going to go out there and demonstrate, but they can; it’s their turn.” 

As coronavirus cases continue to surge, older adults are often dissuaded from going out and participating in the protests, even if they may agree with the ideas being advocated for. Combined with a lack of presence on the internet, this can ultimately leave many older adults feeling left behind or “wanting to leave [current issues] to younger generations,” as Leon Watts III, a learning and development specialist at the USC Fall Prevention Center, puts it. “When it comes to communicating to older adults about digital media … I know that sound bites are important,” he says.

Watts and adjunct professor of gerontology Tameka Brown have been leading weekly Zoom meetings, providing a safe space for both students and faculty to freely discuss their thoughts and support the conversation encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement. “The whole term ‘Defund the Police’ is a banner, and so is ‘Black Lives Matter’— it’s a flag. Some can hear that as an assault or an exclusionary term, as compared to when I hear it as everyone matters. Everybody matters … and you get people’s attention.”

For those older adults who do choose to participate in the protests, such as Karen Koblitz, a retired associate professor from the Roski School of Art and Design, keeping everyone engaged and understanding the hardships of underserved communities is a necessary first step in having meaningful conversations. As someone who participated in the Vietnam War protests almost 52 years ago, Koblitz says, “It’s a really good thing to keep dialogues going, to keep our older faculty and community members engaged with the university through lectures and different programs. You never stop learning.”

Nash notes that while the coronavirus presents new hurdles to jump over, there are plenty of opportunities for older adults to get involved in today’s activism. Organizations such as the Student Gerontology Association and the Emeriti Center have released comprehensive guides on ways for older adults to participate without directly being in contact with others through live demonstrations.

“If we all adhere to guidelines, it makes things safer for everyone. Older adults can be involved in education. They can be involved in online narratives. They can be involved in community memory projects to evidence and drive change,” Nash says. “Older people can and are being involved in virtual and on-the-ground activism.”

“We have a greater means and a greater responsibility to carry out this movement,” says neuroscience sophomore Helen Nguyen, a student worker at the Emeriti Center. “What I’ve learned is that we must keep fighting and we must continue these uncomfortable conversations if we want change, but we must also acknowledge the work our predecessors have done to get where we are now. It may seem like nothing has changed, but every small win matters.”

These are certainly tumultuous times — politically, mentally and socially. However, when we take the first steps of listening to what other generations have to say from both experience and newfound knowledge, beneficial changes can occur. That’s how the conversation begins.

Intergenerational conversation concept - illustration by Brian Stauffer

“Having intergenerational discussions allows the exchange of diverse ideas from both parties,” says USC Leonard Davis PhD in gerontology candidate Liz Avent. (Illustrations by Brian Stauffer)

Bringing Generations Together

At the USC Leonard Davis School, a number of intergenerational groups encourage conversation and cooperation between younger and older adults, including:

Andrus Volunteers
The Andrus volunteers are a group of older adults who enrich the study of aging by offering their perspectives, time and support to USC Leonard Davis students.

Intergenerational Phone Chain
Started by USC Leonard Davis PhD in Gerontology candidate Carly Roman, the phone chain alleviates social isolation in older adults by connecting them with student volunteers for conversation and friendship.

USC GlamourGals Chapter
Volunteers from throughout USC provide senior living residents in the Los Angeles area with manicures, makeovers and companionship.

GeroTech SC
This student-run service organization leads intergenerational technology workshops and hosts speaker events on aging and technology topics.

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