Friends across the ages

August 11, 2014
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My mother is feisty, informed and opinionated but she’s 86 and often finds herself sidelined by younger people. By ‘younger’ I mean anyone from teens to 60s. At a recent social gathering, she was treated as the invisible woman by the 50-year-olds who chatted for an hour over her head. Some people can’t see past the wrinkles to the substance of a person. They associate being old with being dull, stupid and full of complaints. They tar every old person with the same brush, as if they’ve nothing worth contributing.

Yet we know there’s huge variety in how people age. At 46 we can confidently assume certain commonalities; at 86 the divergence is wide between the sharp-witted and the cognitively impaired, between the sick, and those with zest for life. Assumptions can’t be made. Even so, most people aren’t suffering from dementia in their 80s (and if they are they still deserve to be treated with dignity). Most have their faculties, their opinions, memories, and, sometimes, their wisdom to share – if given the chance.

Yet how many of us have real friendships that cross the generations? If we scroll through our contacts, it’s most likely our friends are no more than a decade older or younger, and mostly around our age. In our 60s do we have someone we’d call a dear friend who’s in their 80s? Yet inter-generational friendships can offer rich benefits. For a while in my 20s I had a good friend who was in his 50s. Our common bond was politics. In those turbulent Vietnam War days, he offered help with my fledgling career, and a sophisticated outlook on the world. He and his partner came on a camping trip with a bunch of us 20-somethings to north-west WA and taught us to barbecue fish. He came to my 21st birthday party where I’d banned the relatives. “He’s a friend,” I told my perplexed parents. Later, in my 30s, I had a friend who was in his 70s. Again shared politics was the bond. I loved hearing his stories from the time when being a young Communist was equivalent to being a hipster, and later of his days in the back-rooms of the Whitlam government. I loved his Kings Cross apartment. When he died, I inherited his library. Reading was another love we shared.

My mother divides the younger generations into those that ignore her and those that embrace her as an equal. Fortunately, she has a few younger people in her life – my contemporaries – who treat her without condescension. With one of her young “gentleman callers” she talks endless politics and AFL. With a background in political offices, she hasn’t lost her curiosity. What is it about politics (and sport) that can bind the generations and spur satisfying conversation? Well, for one thing, it keeps both generations off bad knees and backs.

What’s important I think in cross-generational friendships is to hold them to the same standards as other friendships. There needs to be give and take, listening and talking, a rough reciprocity. It shouldn’t be charity on the part of the younger person, or gratitude on the part of the older person; nor a case of an older person downloading their infinite wisdom on the young. Shared enthusiasms and common interests are what transcend age. Yet both parties might get something different out of the friendship – for the older person a connection to the broader culture; and for the younger person a connection to history. But the roles are not always the expected ones. A 60-year-old woman I know was taught to deep-sea dive by a dear friend of hers who’s nearly 80. “She’s an exceptional woman, a pioneer marine conservationist,” the younger woman told me. “It’s been enriching to discuss what she’s done in her life, and I’ve been able to take her to new places and keep her connected. I feel privileged to have her as a friend.”

Some programs deliberately try to bring the generations together – mostly in aged care residences. Usually they involve school students working with the older people. I wonder whether these programs re-inforce the stereotypes of older people as infirm, suffering dementia, and living in an institution. But Margaret Thornton, who runs Kangara Waters, a retirement and aged care facility in Canberra, said the Year 11 and 12 students who share stories with the residents, take them to coffee, and for walks, aren’t repelled. “We tell the students ‘this is the residents’ home.’” The experience, she said, has encouraged the young people to talk to their own grandparents about their lives.

A program chalking up successes in bridging the generational divide is Senior Techies, founded by Merv Stewart, in the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. Twelve to 14-year-olds teach older people from 55 to 90 how to get the most out of their Smartphones and iPads. It’s not a matter of tech-savvy kids imparting superior knowledge to bumbling seniors. Part of the program involves the young asking the older ones, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your life?” As they video the older person’s response, Merv sees a transformation. “They see the senior in a different light,” he said, “having a history, a story, wisdom and insights.” Merv says society puts the generations in boxes. He felt he was making progress when a 13 year-old boy told him recently, “We’re all the same, aren’t we?”

Have you had a much older or younger friend? Please leave a Comment

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