Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
Featured Article: “How Two Lonely Generations Are Helping Each Other Heal” by Richard Schiffman
“The pandemic is not just making many of us sick, it is making virtually all of us lonelier, according to a Harvard report based on a national survey of 950 Americans issued in February,” Richard Schiffman writes. But while young adults and older people have been especially isolated in the pandemic, efforts are underway to help connect them.
In this lesson, you will learn how both young and old have suffered from loneliness during the pandemic and how interaction between them might be the best medicine for each. In Going Further activities, we invite you to write about an important relationship with an elder and, if inspired, to reach out and connect with an older person.
Have you felt lonely and isolated during the pandemic? Have you reached out to an older person for connection or solace during this time?
Take a few minutes to write about your experiences of isolation and of connection during the pandemic, using the following prompts:
How has the pandemic affected your life — physically, socially and emotionally? Have you experienced increased loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic?
How have you coped with feelings of isolation and loneliness? Whom, if anyone, do you reach out to when you need support, comfort and perspective? Has anyone in the past few weeks taken more than a few minutes to ask how you are doing in a way that seems genuinely caring? Do you ever feel like you need more support than you are getting?
Do you have older people in your life? If so, have you maintained connections with them during the pandemic? How have each of you benefited from these interactions during these difficult times? What life lessons have you learned from older adults? From your experience, has the pandemic widened generational divides or helped bridge them?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article and then answer the following questions:
1. How and why have young adults and older people been the two loneliest groups during the pandemic, according to the article? In the Warm Up section above, we asked you whether you had experienced increased loneliness during this time and whether anyone in the past few weeks had taken more than a few minutes to ask how you are doing in a way that seems genuinely caring. How did your answers compare to those in the Harvard study cited in the article?
2. Why does Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a lead researcher on the study, believe that the young and the old would feel a lot less isolated if they had more contact with one another?
3. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, says that elders are experts in how to thrive during hard times. Give two examples of older people’s wisdom described in the article. What do you think of advice like “relishing the small things in life” even during a pandemic?
4. Marc Freedman, the founder of Encore.org, says that “we started the 20th century as one of the most age-integrated societies in the world and ended it as the most age-segregated.” Why are multigenerational homes no longer the norm? What do you think we are losing as a society when generations are “divided into self-selected silos of their own peers”?
5. How have young people like Ella Gardner, age 18, and Sam Cozolino, 14, taken advantage of the pandemic to get to know older people better? How did they benefit and grow from these opportunities?
6. Why did Laurinda Bedingfield, 67, who was matched with a young person by a home-sharing service, doubt that her desire for friendship would be reciprocated? What did she discover instead? What other misconceptions and obstacles do you think might get in the way of old and young people bonding and learning from one another?
7. What is your reaction to the article and its description of efforts to bring young and older people together during the pandemic? What examples or quotes were most memorable, surprising or moving? Do you think young people and society as a whole could benefit from more cross-generational experiences — even when the pandemic is over? Does it make you wish you had more connections with older people?
Option 1: Share your reactions.
Choose one or more of the following writing prompts:
While Ella Gardner admits that “I’ve always been scared about growing old,” the article notes that increased contact with older people has made her more comfortable about the prospect of aging, which she now sees as “a natural part of life.” Do you look forward to old age? What do you think you might learn from more interaction with elders? Like the young people profiled in the article, how might you benefit?
Dr. Weissbourd says, “Young people have so much to share with the elderly about a rapidly changing world — not just technology, but new and important ways of thinking about race and racism, justice, sexuality and gender and other critical issues.” Do you agree? What specific experiences and perspectives do you think you could bring to older people? What would you want to share?
Write about an important relationship or experience with an older person. Use detailed and vivid language to describe the person, how you know or met the person and what makes that person special. Is there a memorable story or a memory of when you learned something valuable, interesting or funny from an older person? How have older people made a difference in your life? What lessons, wisdom or perspective did you gain?
Do you think schools should create more cross-generational experiences as part of the curriculum? Why or why not?
Option 2: Reach out and connect to an elder.
If inspired by the article, find some way — big or small — to connect with an older person, whether in your family or your community. Ella volunteered to shop and do chores for elders who had become housebound during the pandemic. Sam Cozolino researched his ancestral history, connecting with long-lost relatives in Italy, with the aim of creating a family tree. Rain Shanks, 26 has weekly Zoom sessions with elders through The LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project.
What would you want to do? Volunteer? Create a family tree? Conduct an interview? Chat on Zoom? Write a letter of thanks or gratitude? Or perhaps simply pick up a phone to say hello?
Need more ideas? Here are some resources to help you connect with older people:
Whatever activity you choose, consider keeping a journal to record your thoughts and feelings. Afterward, share your experiences with the class: What did you do? How did it affect both you and the elder? What did you learn?