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Older people offer resources that children need, Stanford report says

Author  :  CLIFTON B. PARKER     Source  :    Stanford University     2016-09-21

When older adults contribute to the well-being of youth, it cultivates a sense of purpose and extends benefits both ways, according to a new Stanford report.

Such relationships are important for society. They can help ensure that children and teens receive the kind of attention and mentoring they often lack, especially among the most vulnerable populations, the Stanford scholars said. These relationships also offer older adults opportunities to learn about new technology and trends, and experience the excitement of seeing the world through a younger perspective.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor who led the report and is the director of the Stanford Center for Longevity, said, “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.”

Carstensen’s prior research has 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 and her co-authors wrote. “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.”

As for older adults, the report pointed out, they benefit as well, experiencing emotional satisfaction in relationships with young people. One way to achieve such contact is through volunteer service, which is associated with better physical health and cognitive performance for aging people. From a societal view, these interactions are positive, too.

“Focusing volunteer efforts on young people improve their (young people’s) chances of success in life,” Carstensen said. “These mutual benefits are perhaps the most compelling reason for programs that connect young and old.”

Young adults require emotional skills to succeed in life, Carstensen said. These are the attitudes, behaviors and strategies required to operate as a productive adult in an increasingly complex and technical world. And they are the types of skills and experiences that older adults have in abundance due to their life experiences.

Parents matter, of course, but the research shows that significant benefits exist for children who have an older adult mentor in addition to their parents, Carstensen said.

“Age-related increases in wisdom, life experiences and emotional stability are well-documented, as is a drive to give to others in a meaningful way,” she said.

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.

Editor: Yu Hui

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