Intergenerational friendships can anchor a person in their local community, help them access new world views – and be fun
Imagine someone living alone, loosely tethered to their community, with family far away. Maybe this person wouldn’t say they are lonely – maybe they know how to muffle it, making cheery conversation in the grocery line – but the feeling is there, a moon tugging the tides of their days.
One day, a neighbor appears at their door. The two are decades apart and have shared pleasantries in passing, but nothing more. This time, the older neighbor holds a steaming bowl of soup. The occupant’s first thought is dread. I am being pitied. Still, the soup is good. Literally and figuratively, a heart is warmed.
Who have you imagined for these roles? Who have you cast? It is hard, now, to see myself as that house’s lonely inhabitant, having moved alone to Traverse City, Michigan, for a temporary teaching job when I was 27. I wore my loneliness like a rash, a secret under my sleeve as I walked my school’s hallways. The presence of my long-distance boyfriend, friends and family felt spectral, like cheery ghosts who appeared every now and then from my iPhone. My loneliness swelled whenever I heard groups of people my age coming back from bars downtown.
If I thought I was too young to be lonely, I was wrong. A 2018 report by Cigna health insurance revealed that millennial and generation Z Americans feel lonelier than older generations; people who live alone do too. Statistically, I was perhaps an average lonely neighbor.
Doreen was about my mother’s age, prone to doing yard chores in a sequined camouflage coat. When she appeared on my stoop with chilli made from an elk her husband had killed, I was mostly vegetarian. Still, touched by the offering of the sagging paper bowl swaddled in plastic-wrap, I ate it all. I hated to imagine her clocking how early my light went off on the weekends, but I soon learned to stop imagining her motives for care and meet her as a friend. What started as culinary trades – apple crisp from me, minestrone from her – grew into chatty updates. Sometimes I’d intend to go for a run but end up on the sidewalk for 15 minutes, my eyes watery with laughter as she mimed the Chippendales show she’d seen with her girlfriends at a nearby casino.
At the end of the school year, I gifted Doreen the leftover cans and bottles from my fridge, and she pulled me in for a last hug. Is it worth saying we are not in touch any more, that our connection was bounded by the proximity of our houses? The fact that our friendship did not transcend the street does not make it a failed one. Now, when I think of that year, I feel immense gratitude to those like Doreen who extended themselves to me, inviting me to kayak, to go to a jazz show, to come over for pizza or brunch, to join their writing group. Except for one, all the good friends I made that year were at least a few decades older than me, but because we enjoyed doing or talking about the same things, the age discrepancy felt essentially irrelevant. In chatting with millennial peers about my experience, I was surprised to see my emotional trajectory echoed. Not only did many of my friends who had moved to new places also feel shame about being a “lonely twentysomething”, they were surprised to see that in the absence of a “built-in” pack of old school friends, their social lives bloomed vertically across the generations. In other words: the people who extended themselves to us young newcomers were often older.
This squares with the findings of Catherine Elliott O’Dare, a social work and social policy professor at Trinity College Dublin, who has found that intergenerational friendship can help root young people in new communities. O’Dare advocates for a conceptual mind shift, arguing for the “insignificance of age homophily” and challenging cultural expectations that age is a good baseline for friendship.
“As one of my participants said, ‘We don’t wear our birthday cards around our necks,’” O’Dare told me. Her research shows that the engine oil of such bonds isn’t pity or do-goodery, but the same things that fuel peer-age friendships: reciprocity, humor, shared interests. “If you find a like-minded person – and that’s a real gift in life – age doesn’t matter,” she said. “If anything, it can lend an extra dimension of interest to what is essentially an enjoyable relationship.”
When her study participants spoke about age in intergenerational friendships, they referred to it as a boon, a catalyst for conversation and skill-sharing, a door for accessing new parts of one’s local community. A younger person might begin frequenting theaters or museums after visiting with an older friend, for example, while an older person might become reacquainted with a more childlike view of the world. Being with people of different ages helps us access new planes of both world and self.
I thought of Doreen’s nextdoor camaraderie a few weeks ago, after throwing an inaugural party in a new house. During the pandemic, I had moved back to my Portland, Oregon, home town, settling last spring in a new neighborhood. Though my community spanned generations, that night I decided to invite primarily thirtysomethings, thus subscribing to just the sort of assumption O’Dare’s work challenged: that those in the same age bracket will have the most in common.
While setting up a food and drink table in my backyard, I saw my older neighbor walking down the alley. Without a child or dog to instigate interaction, my relationships with others on the street had emerged slowly, if at all. Only after bonding over street construction did I learn that this neighbor had lived here for decades, now alone in a house much bigger than mine. Meeting him with a wave, I told him I had invited some friends over to eat, and that he should let me know if the noise bothered him. He shook his head, grinning at the absurdity of the idea, then told me to have a lovely time. “You should come by!” I said, on a sudden whim. “I have lots of food.” He laughed, tipping his head with consideration. “I’ll think about it.”
I had forgotten about my invite when, just after dark, he appeared in the glow of the firepit. Handing my neighbor an ice-cream bar, I began introducing him to my younger friends. A few hours later, he found me to say goodbye. “I had such a good time,” he said. “I really needed that.” I told him I was honored he had joined, then watched as his small form retreated toward his dark house. The next day, he called to ask if he could help clean up. Everything was done, but I told him how much it had meant that he had come, suggesting we have dinner when I returned from a trip, and make it a regular thing. “Name a date and I’ll be there!” he said.
He wasn’t the only one who had enjoyed hanging out. Over the course of the day, I got multiple texts from friends along the lines of: Thanks for the party! Your neighbor is the best!
I was happy the invitation had brought him joy, but my thrill did not come from being virtuous. It came from kindling mutual connection. How wrong I had been to assume he would not enjoy himself in a millennial crowd, and vice versa! How nearsighted it was, to assume we knew what would bring another joy.
In 2021, the United Nations and World Health Organization issued a landmark global report on ageism. It’s a call-to-arms about a problem that costs society billions of dollars, shortens lifespans and worsens physical and mental health, increases financial insecurity, and exacerbates discrimination for those already facing ableism, sexism and racism.
The infrastructure of western culture – with its institutionalization of school, career and social life – has created generational silos, what the Norwegian sociologist GO Hagestad calls “vertically deprived” communities. Because older and younger populations are often depicted as pitted against one another, competing for government support, Hagestad suggests that thinking of these two populations as “book-end generations” may underscore commonalities and seed connection.
Though I write this as a 31-year-old, ever closer to the middle of the bookshelf, generation-wise, the value I now put on intergenerational friendships was cemented during those youthful windows when I myself felt most adrift.
The week before hosting my backyard party, I spent 24 hours in Cambridge, Massachusetts, visiting Elise, the grandmother of a high school friend. Aware of how few ties I had on the east coast, my friend’s father had introduced me to her when I moved cross-country for college.
“I have to confess my first reaction was, ‘Oh, well, now I’m going to be a hotel or whatever,’” Elise told me, laughing, when I called to ask if we could chat about our friendship. Her confession of past-tense apprehension tickled me: it was just the sort of honesty and no-nonsense humor that had first drawn me to her. “Looking back on it,” she said, “it seems to me we just hit it off. We went to a museum or had a meal or something. The connection was wonderful, kind of special from the very beginning.”
What began as generosity – her offer of a guest room when my plane got in late – quickly became a proper friendship. Over Lillet spritzes or mugs of lemon ginger tea, we’d talk about places we dreamed of visiting, the social currents of our lives, the things we had read in classes, me as college student, her as auditor. “I just sort of kept thinking, ‘Gee, this is such a young person, why would you possibly want to spend time with me?’” Elise said. I had often felt the same way, self-conscious of being a couch-surfing slouch, even as I sensed our conversations unspooling with a vulnerability and openness I had previously known mostly with generational peers.
Research has shown that trust can be deeper between non-kin intergenerational friends. With different primary social groups, people may be less worried about their own secrets being shared; gone too is the envy and competition that can bloom among those on the same steps of the life ladder.
One winter I got snowed in, so Elise showed me how to make yogurt on the stove, and I walked her dog on the icy street. Older adults are often depicted as “givers” of wisdom to younger “receivers”, or as “passive benefactors” requiring care, write O’Dare and Finnish researcher Riikka Korkiamäki, but the language of pleasure and reciprocity – of a friendship rooted in the give-and-take of aid and advice, but also of jokes – offers an alternative for conceptualizing intergenerational bonds. “The whole premise of friendship is that it’s chosen. There’s an element of reciprocity, but there’s no ‘poor anybody’,” O’Dare told me. “Isn’t that what friendships are about? That everyone is equal?”
After graduating and moving away, I began planning trips just to see Elise, aware I was now closer to her than the grandson who had been our link. I introduced her to college friends, to my sister, to boyfriends – what she called my “coterie” – and over time I became familiar with her friends and neighbors, too.
A week after leaving her apartment, and a few days after my own backyard party, I walked over to my neighbor’s big house and rang the bell. It was a warm, sunny autumn afternoon, and I was bored. I wanted to procrastinate email by eating an ice-cream bar. Elise was always willing to swerve our plans for a good sweet, and I loved that spontaneity, the let’s-get-in-the-car-and-get-a-pastry attitude. Clocking how many ice-creams remained in my freezer after the party, I decided to see if my neighbor would help me eat them. After laughing at the sight of me, holding a dripping Häagen-Dazs bar on his stoop, he cracked open a package.
For a few minutes we stood in the sun, chuckling about the rat-like behavior of the local squirrels, then, when the ice-creams were gone, we said our goodbyes. Walking the few steps home, I grinned. It wasn’t because I’d done something nice – it was because I’d done something fun.