Someone to Inter-generate With

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Once in a great while I have an experience that unexpectedly and swiftly changes a long-held opinion. Usually, if I shift an attitude, it’s after much talking, studying, and thinking. But I had an encounter lately that made me see how I can revamp my mind almost instantly. It was about an “intergenerational” moment.

I have been a long-term, closet questioner of activities that fall into the “across the generations” category. It isn’t that I’ve never been exposed to programs that bring generations together or never participated in discussions about connecting the younger and the older. In theory, making bridges across age groups sounds good.

My reluctance to wholly embrace the concept stems from basic skepticism. Although it should seem natural to convene multiple generations, questions rankled my mind. “What are the goals? What will be accomplished?” Somehow the rosy, somewhat pie-in-the-sky attitude of bringing age cohorts together had never quite convinced me that doing so was worthy of time and commitment. I wondered about the long-term staying power and influence of one-time interventions where people gathered for a day and then went home.

There are programs where the benefits seem positive such as an older adult tutoring a child to improve her life, and where the child has someone who cares about his future. These contacts may last for a while and offer the chance for a deeper relationship.

It is the “deeper” part that I’ve wanted to understand better. Until I had my recent experience, I couldn’t have explained or defined what I meant by “deeper.” Now I know.

Several Saturdays ago my cousin and I went to a day-long program at Brown University. It was the Artists and Scientists as Partners 2017 Symposium entitled INTERGENERATIVITY: Creative Exchange Between Generations, designed to engender art, ideas, community, connection, and reflection. I went mainly because my cousin invited me and it was an opportunity for us to catch up. The symposium was less important to me than spending time with her.

I signed up for a workshop called ‘Art2Art’ not really knowing what it would be. The workshop was in a square theater with a rough-plank wood stage in the middle and tiers of seats around the periphery. A trio with a cello, violin, and horn was to play while we teamed up with someone we didn’t know. We were instructed to create art using the paper and crayons they supplied. I grudgingly participated. Everyone sat cross-legged on the stage. I sat on the edge; my body had long abandoned cross-leggedness. I asked my Sophomore-year student partner if it was OK if I wrote instead of creating art. It was fine with her. We closed our eyes for a few minutes and, with mournful music as a backdrop, we intently bent over our materials and worked. I was surprised at the emotions that flowed out of me – about a troubling family situation, how I had already had a life-time of sad occurrences, that I was tired and so very weary even though my life had been filled with mostly good things.

My partner crafted an art object on a piece of paper that was florescent orange on one side and electric green on the other. She cut flaps and folded them to show the brilliance of the contrasting colors, and how impressions changed when the open areas of the art were held over the wooden floor, hazy windows, or the black cross-beams of the theater’s ceiling. When she read my writing, she made another drawing showing a path with a person walking towards an oval cut-out surrounded by flowers and stars. Then we talked. I learned that even with being young she too had been through a lot, carrying much sadness and responsibility. She talked about what she wanted to do with her future and how she tried to make careful and thoughtful decisions. We sat for a long time on the edge of that rough stage listening to each other. I cried.

It was a powerful across-the-generations moment for me. I would never have thought it possible and could not have predicted my deep reaction. I came in with negative expectations and left feeling quietly enriched.

I think that what happened involved some luck in finding each other. But, it doesn’t matter how much was serendipity and how much was because I was ripe for unveiling my mind and feelings, and she was a compassionate, caring person ready to give.

She and I are in touch, and I hope to get to Providence for lunch in the next few months. I am a little less hardened and know now that good things can emerge if I am ready to be open, trusting, and willing to put aside preconceived, restrictive ideas that may prevent me from experiencing tiny miracles. She and I had the chance to experience a cross-generation moment. I think I will hold this instant forever, and hope that she does too. It is perfectly fitting that my forever is a lot shorter than hers because it is beautiful to learn and blossom at any age.


  1. Paula Gilbert

    April 14, 2017

    Marian, this is so “deep” and I loved reading it. You clearly learning so much from this experience. I never knew that you were so mistrusting of intergenerational moments of learning. I have never felt that way, perhaps because I’ve been teaching for so long. But I’m thrilled that you have changed your mind. And–which cousin?! 😊

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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