Building Intergenerational Communities

An intergenerational community is one that values both youth and older adults.

ARTICLE | Nov 10, 2014
Neighbors who live on Menlo Boulevard in Shorewood, Wisconsin, drop in to plant flowers on a spring day.

The move toward building intergenerational communities is being driven by a number of factors, including longer life expectancy, desire of older adults to age in place, changing family patterns that result in generations living apart, and growing awareness of the importance of age-friendly communities. Intergenerational communities are those that value young people and older people alike; they provide opportunities for the generations to interact and to get to know one another.

Intergenerational activities have been a part of the village of Shorewood, Wisconsin’s culture since it was incorporated in 1900. As a tight-knit community where neighbors live in close proximity to one another, it is common for generations to be working alongside each other simply because it is the way things have been done.

At the same time, Shorewood has undertaken intentional efforts to ensure there are opportunities for people of all ages to feel valued and to contribute to the life of the community. As a result of Shorewood’s efforts, it has been recognized as one of four “Best Intergenerational Communities 2014” in a nationwide competition sponsored by Generations United, with funding from the MetLife Foundation. (For information on the competition and results, visit http://www.gu.org/OURWORK/Programs/BestIntergenerationalCommunities.aspx.)

About Shorewood

Located along the shore of Lake Michigan just to the north of the city of Milwaukee, Shorewood is home to 13,192 residents in an area of 1.5 square miles.

It’s known as a highly walkable community, with 64 miles of sidewalks throughout the village linking residents with four schools; bus stops; an incorporated business improvement district that includes grocery stores, pharmacies, health care providers, shops, and restaurants; and three parks. Shorewood is said to be “just two feet from everything,” and it is minutes away from cultural and recreational icons in Milwaukee where Shorewood residents visit and volunteer.

Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River are located at Shorewood’s eastern and western borders. On the north, it is bordered by the village of Whitefish Bay and on the south by the city of Milwaukee. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee shares this southern border.

Shorewood is home to a diverse population and is the most densely populated local government in the state of Wisconsin. It is a community filled with people who desire to be connected—to each other and to the institutions in the community. Promoting quality of life is at the top of Shorewood’s priorities list.

Knowing the Important Issues

While pride in the school system has always been at the heart of the community, Shorewood has worked hard to ensure that it is a vibrant community for people of all ages to live.

The Milwaukee County Department on Aging conducted a survey of older residents in 2008. In answering questions about the senior-friendliness of the village, respondents expressed a desire to remain in Shorewood as they age, along with a desire to become more involved in volunteer efforts.

Following the survey, the Shorewood Connects partnership was launched as a community organizing effort to bring together public and private stakeholders dedicated to increasing the age-friendliness of the community. As one of four original Shorewood Connects work groups, the Intergenerational Work Group serves as the intergenerational glue that brings together the village government, school district, and business improvement district, along with youth and seniors.

The initiatives of Shorewood Connects, including the fall and spring yard cleanup days, the Neighborhood of the Year competition, and more recently, the Senior-Friendly Business Certification Program, all serve to build and strengthen connections among residents.

Recognizing the value of the Shorewood Connects initiative to the village’s quality of life in alignment with Shorewood’s Vision Plan, the village board provides funding for a paid facilitator to coordinate activities and to purchase a small amount of promotional materials. The 2014 village budget includes $7,715 for the project.

The work group decided at the start to seek a balance in intergenerational activities so as not to cast older adults as helpless and youth as helpers. Creating an inventory of intergenerational programs was one of the first activities of the work group. Here is a sample of the findings:

 

  • Shorewood’s school district benefits from having older volunteers help in the schools and at school events.
  • In 2013, one of the elementary schools collaborated with older adults at the Senior Resource Center on an art project, creating an opportunity for conversation while students and seniors worked together.
  • The Shorewood Men’s Club and Shorewood Women’s Club both fund scholarships for high school students, and they welcome youth volunteers at their fundraising events.
  • Shorewood Intermediate Middle School hosts a recognition event for veterans on Veterans’ Day.
  • The Shorewood Senior Resource Center holds an annual essay contest for sixth graders on the topic of important older people in their lives.
  • Student volunteers from nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee share their expertise in technology by offering assistance to seniors in the use of cellphones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Some intergenerational activities have a service component, including yard cleanup days, while others are more social in nature. Social activities include:

  • The Shorewood Public Library, in choosing its “Shorewood Reads” book, purposely picked a book read by students in English classes at the high school. The resulting book discussions included both high school students and older residents.
  • The Annual Shorewood Men’s Club Chicken Barbecue features an array of bands that cover the musical interests of the young and the old.
  • The Shorewood Community Fitness Center offers a Silver Sneakers program as well as youth programming. On any given day, older people and teens are working out at the fitness center, side by side.
  • The Shorewood Recreation and Community Service Department programs include the intergenerational community choral arts program and the Senior Citizen Pass, which allows older adults free admission to high school sporting events and performances.

The Annual Shorewood Public Library Summer Celebration is run by two groups primarily composed of seniors (Friends of the Library and the Shorewood Women’s Club), along with the Library’s Teen Advisory Board.

  • Plans are already under way to connect a new senior housing development, Harbor Chase (groundbreaking was held in July 2014), to Shorewood schools and to the Shorewood Senior Resource Center.

As a community known for a high level of civic engagement, intentional efforts have been made to include youth representatives on these village committees:

    • Conservation Committee.
    • Library Board.
    • Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Committee.
    • Recreation and Community Services Advisory Committee.
    • Shorewood Community Fitness Center Advisory Committee.

 

In addition to developing a host of new activities referenced earlier (Neighborhood of the Year competition, fall and spring yard cleanup, and Senior Friendly Business Certification), Shorewood Connects has also raised awareness about integrating intergenerational practices into other programs and activities.

This is best illustrated when a member of a group asks the question, “How can we do this intergenerationally?” As an example, the Elder Services Advisory Board recently discussed purchasing artwork for a meeting room used by the Senior Resource Center.

After discussion, the board decided to approach the Shorewood High School Art Department regarding a student competition, with a scholarship from the Senior Center going to the winning student who will be selected by a panel of Senior Center members.

 

Lessons for Other Communities

Calling attention to what is already happening in a community is a good place to start. Looking for ways to expand intergenerational opportunities will follow if there is sufficient community interest and an entity that assumes responsibility for this task, along with funding support to ensure that communication flows and the project keeps moving.

Most communities already have intergenerational programming with such traditional partners as schools, senior centers, daycare centers, and senior residential facilities. There are also potential nontraditional partners that should be considered too, both public and private, including libraries, businesses, community foundations, community organizations, recreational organizations, and others.

 

The extent to which there is interaction and respect between the generations can lead to mutual support on such voter issues as school referenda and the allocation of resources for senior programs and activities. An investment in quality-of-life efforts can also yield results in terms of attracting new residents and businesses that are seeking a place with a strong sense of community and community pride.

In short, intentional planning to cultivate a culture where intergenerational interactions become the norm will result in an engaged, caring community.

 

Resources

Here is information that can be helpful to managers in communities seeking to jump-start intergenerational activities and projects.

Website: Generations United at http://www.gu.org.

Website: The World Health Organization at http://www.who.int/ageing/age-friendly-world/.

Website: AARP at http://www.aarpinternational.org/events/agefriendly2012.

Book: Under One Roof: A Guide to Starting and Strengthening Intergenerational Shared Site Programs, Generations United 2005.

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