October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW2

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Building Bridges - An Intergenerational Program

Long-distance grandparents and grandchildren are common and may have resulted in growing tensions between young and old. Building Bridges provides opportunities for children to learn and interact with seniors as well as for seniors to share their talents and enjoy being with children for meaningful experiences. Education, friendships, and caring are main components. Without funding support, 23 agencies, schools, nursing homes, 10 volunteers, 900 children, and 520 frail and home bound seniors were reached. Evaluation showed that the program has made a significant impact on the children and seniors.

Nina Chen
Human Development Specialist
University of Missouri
University Extension
Carthage, Missouri
Internet Address: chenn@ext.missouri.edu

Today's children and older people have limited opportunities for meaningful interaction in a country increasingly segregated by age and marked by long distance grandparents and grandchildren. The generations are divided emotionally, physically, and socially while missing exciting opportunities to learn and share. This may result in growing tensions if the young don't understand the old and the old fear the young (Roybal, 1985; Halpern, 1987; Cohon, 1985; DeBord & Flanagan, 1994).

Some research shows that children who don't have enough opportunities to interact with their grandparents are likely to have negative feelings about being old. They perceive older people as having gray hair, wrinkles, being unable to do anything, and sick (Seefeldt, Warman, Jantz, & Galper, 1990). If, however, children have enough contact with older people, they usually feel comfortable to be with them and have more understanding about aging (Seefeldt, 1985). Some studies indicate that most older people who are living alone feel lonely and depressed that can be one cause of suicide (McIntosh, 1993).

Jasper County in southwest Missouri had about 14,100 people age 65 or older, about 16% of the total population, in 1990. Thirty-eight percent were living alone and 6% lived in institutions (Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis, 1992). University of Missouri Extension took the lead in inviting local agencies and people to identify the need for bridging the generations, in particular, frail and home bound seniors. After the first meeting, an intergenerational programs committee was formed in February 1995 that included social service agencies, schools, Head Start, American Association of Retired Persons, Girl Scouts, Division of Aging, civic groups, and volunteers.

A program called Building Bridges was developed. The purpose was to provide opportunities for children to interact and learn from seniors as well as for seniors to enjoy meaningful experiences and relationships with children. Education, friendships, and caring were main components. The program began in September 1995, involving 23 agencies, schools, nursing homes, 10 volunteers, 900 children, and 520 frail and home bound seniors.

Volunteer and Participants Recruitment

Personal contacts, presentations at civic groups, visiting nursing homes and schools, and news releases were approaches to recruit people. Volunteers completed three forms including a volunteer application, introductory questionnaire, and application for child abuse and neglect screening. After screening, 13 volunteers were selected (age range from 55 to 79) and went through a volunteer orientation. The orientation provided volunteers with more understanding about the program, children's ability and behavior, legal issues, what to do in emergencies, job expectations, and wisdom of the ages. A Building Bridges volunteer support group was formed to provide information and assistance. After 8 months' work, 3 volunteers resigned because of their health and family situations.

During school visits, the program objectives, methods, and possible limitations (e.g., most older people cannot write because of their health) were addressed so teachers and principals could prepare their students ahead of time. A total of 23 elementary schools (including the entire student body of one school), child care services, an after school program from Family Y, Head Start, senior citizens centers, Girl Scouts, Girls in Action, and nursing homes were recruited for this program.

Building Bridges Components


The "education" component focuses on helping children learn from and develop positive images of older adults as well as helping older adults achieve a sense of fulfillment. According to Building Bridges volunteers' preferences, they were assigned to different schools to work with children. Reading, story telling, history, and special projects were major focuses.

Some volunteers worked with children individually to help with reading, math, science, writing, and learning skills. Some helped children with lower reading skills. One helped an immigrant girl with English. Others shared about their childhood, stories, life experiences, and history. Some taught special projects such as traditional crafts, art work, and learning about rocks. These activities have helped 220 children enhance their learning skills through meaningful interactions with older people.


The "friendships" component not only helped increase children's aging awareness and develop a sense of caring and respect for the elderly, but also helped home bound and frail seniors share their life experiences and brighten up their days.

About 690 children from elementary schools, child care services and an after school program at Family Y drew pictures and wrote letters once a month through their writing classes or projects. These letters and pictures were delivered to about 400 home bound seniors and frail seniors. Some letters and drawings were put on a meal tray when volunteers delivered meals to seniors. Case workers from Division of Aging delivered letters to frail seniors when they went to visit. The rest were mailed to nursing homes. A letter about the Building Bridges program accompanied a child's first letter or drawing to let seniors know about the program and ask if they would like to continue to receive children's mail.

As expected, frail and home bound seniors loved to receive children's letters; however, the majority of them were not able to write back because of their health. Hence, teachers encouraged their students to share any seniors' letters with the class. This has been a good approach to help children learn about aging and sharing. Children's letters not only boost older people, but they also offer older people chances to share their childhood, life experiences, and interests.


The "caring" component provided opportunities for children to share their sense of caring, for two generations to make connections with each other and learn from each other through fun activities. One hundred thirty children visited 120 seniors at nursing homes and senior citizens centers once or twice a month. They danced, sang songs, read stories, or did projects together. At the beginning of the first visit, teachers explained about visiting older people that helped children know what to expect. Children learned more about older people from talking with nursing home residents. They asked questions about why people live in nursing homes, why some people cannot walk or sit in a wheel chair, and so on. Children learned that not all older people are alike. Children's visits made older people happy and they always looked forward to the next visit.

Building Bridges Calendar and Fair

To promote the value of intergenerational issues, University of Missouri Extension designed a Building Bridges calendar as part of the promotion materials. The calendar emphasized the value of bridging generational gaps and gave information about the Building Bridges program. These calendars were distributed to 125 agencies, media, businesses, and schools.

A Building Bridges fair was conducted in a shopping mall. The event was an innovative program to raise awareness of the value of intergenerational issues and recognize volunteers and participants' support and involvement. The fair included displays, performances, and recognition. Again, with local agencies, civic groups, and peoples' help, the fair successfully reached 200 people and had good coverage on three TV stations. One nursing home brought their residents to the fair. Some sat in wheel chairs; others from a special care unit sat in the front row to watch performances. They concentrated on the performances and enjoyed the fair very much. This was a special experience for them.

Impacts of the Program

A program evaluation was conducted in 1996. An open-ended questionnaire was given to 100 students. The results showed that the program was well received and has made a significant impact in communities. For instance, 89% of the children responded that the program was excellent, fun, great, a cool idea, and should be continued to expand to other communities. They felt good about themselves because they helped older people not to be lonely and have something to do. They also felt that the program showed people that you care.

Some said they enjoyed the program very much because it gave them a chance to learn about other age groups. Ten percent of the children said it was OK, and only 1% responded negatively because they never received letters from the seniors and were disappointed. When asked for suggestions, their responses were "the program should be continued; have a chance to meet my partner; exchange pictures; if seniors have problems writing, ask nurses or case workers to write letters for them; tell us about the person more."

School principals, teachers, and agents interviewed were pleased to be part of the program. They commented that the program not only helped children practice writing skills, develop a sense of caring and respect for elders, but also cheered older people up. For instance: "We are so glad to see the program is working. Our frail seniors like to read letters from children, in particular on holidays which lifts their days. Some of them have built a friendship bond to write to each other." One teacher commented "The students are motivated to write and are excited to share the letters that they receive. I think this program is helping to reinforce caring and compassion among our young people."

Volunteers filled out an exit questionnaire at the end of the school year. The findings showed that volunteers felt good about helping children and had more positive perceptions about younger generations. They felt they were productive, creative, and resourceful. One volunteer commented "I enjoyed the interaction of working with children and their teachers. It is so rewarding to be one of the bridges." Overall, caring, respect, enjoyment, sharing, making connections, and productivity emerged as results of the program.

Summary and Recommendations

The Building Bridges program was successful without funding support because of community collaboration and involvement. Inviting agencies, schools, organizations, churches, senior citizens, child care providers, girl and boy scouts, and media to form an intergenerational programs committee is a good way to start. Sharing information about needs, benefits, and resources with committee members at the first meeting helped them explore programpossibilities.

The Building Bridges program is unique because frail and home bound seniors were involved. These seniors are easily ignored by society. A piece of mail from a child means a lot to them because it may be the only outside communication they receive in a month. If there is a Meals on Wheels program, it is a good idea to deliver children's letters with a home bound meal tray. A letter of introduction should be included at the beginning to inform senior citizens of the program.

There are many things to be aware of when working in such a program. Children writing letters should use a big font due to frail seniors' vision problems. Avoid using staples to seal letters because it is not easy for frail seniors to open. If it is possible, have children use computers to write letters. Children need to know ahead of time that most frail and home bound seniors cannot write back because of health problems. A thank you note to children at the end of the school year or special holidays to express appreciation can mean a lot. In addition, teachers can help children prepare for nursing home visits by viewing a videotape or telling stories about nursing homes and aging.

An intergenerational program not only bridges a generational gap with meaningful interactions, but also teaches children some positive aspects of being old. Hence, it is important to use an experiential approach to help children learn. For instance, experience sensory changes,interview "young-old' and "old-old," read story books, news articles, and advertisements about older people and have them draw pictures or write down their thoughts to discuss.

Recruiting volunteers is not easy. It takes time and effort to encourage older people to be involved. The key is to talk to media and civic groups, such as retired teachers associations, American Association of Retired Persons, and Association for Family and Community Education (FCE formerly Extension homemaker clubs). In addition, volunteers bring their neighbors, club members, and friends to the program.

It is vital to provide continuing support for volunteers and participants to maintain enthusiasm and to make them feel valued and special. Recognition should include every child who is involved in the program, even 3- or 4-year olds. An intergenerational program fair to raise awareness of the issues is a good idea. Performance, displays, and recognition are approaches to promote the program. Children, volunteers, senior citizens, and nursing home residents celebrate the program together through various activities.

Finally, there are many ways to conduct intergenerational programs. Working with high schools, 4-H clubs, or local businesses can be ways to bridge a gap between young and old. A successful tool for implementing the program is to have local people and agencies involved and build a sense of ownership by working together toward a common goal.


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Halpern, J. (1987). Helping your aging parents: A practical guide for adult children. New York: Ballantine Books.

McIntosh, J. (1993). The suicide of older men and women: How you can help prevent a tragedy. Washington D.C.: AARP

Office of Social & Economic Data Analysis. (1992). Social & Economic Profile - Southwest Region. University Extension.

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