What’s a 70 Year Difference Between Friends?
By Donna B. Fedus
Caitlin was required to talk with Jean for a college assignment. I paired Caitlin, then 21, with Jean, then 91, based on a shared interest in writing and public relations. It was supposed to be a one-time conversation.
Each student in my Sociology of Aging class at Quinnipiac University gets paired with an older adult for a conversation, otherwise known as a semi-structured key informant interview. I value my intergenerational friendships with Jean and the many others I pair with my students. These connections offer deep learning opportunities for both parties and prepare students to co-exist in meaningful ways in a world with people of all ages. As a gerontologist educator, I’ve learned over the past 30 years that connecting people across generations and having them work toward a shared goal is one of the most effective and efficient ways to break down ageism. It’s harder to hang onto stereotypes when you get to know “the other” as the multidimensional and complex individual they are. Caitlin got it.
In her assignment, Caitlin wrote, “In the hour that we spoke, I learned so much, and I am truly thankful to have had this opportunity. I asked Jean simple questions about her age, her life, where she grew up, what brought her to Portland, and how she is feeling, and it turned into something so much more dynamic and interesting.” Caitlin and Jean both enjoyed the conversation. Caitlin got full marks. Little did any of us know that the seeds of a longer-lasting friendship had been planted.
Jean and Caitlin met and completed their assignment in the fall of 2019, just before COVID hit. The next thing I knew, Jean was asking me late in the spring of 2020 what Caitlin was planning after graduation and how she was handling COVID-19. It was only then that I learned that Jean and Caitlin continued to talk every week for about 30 weeks after the assignment ended!
This floored me. I wanted to learn more, hoping to discover their dynamic to inform future projects and inspire others looking to form intergenerational friendships. I invited Jean and Caitlin to share insights about why their friendship blossomed.
Biggest Issue is Lack of Access
Neither Caitlin nor Jean saw their 70-year age gap as a barrier to forming a friendship. Jean identified access as the biggest issue. She said if it weren’t for the class assignment, it’s highly unlikely she would have met Caitlin or anyone else in her generation. Caitlin agreed.
Jean: “Well, now and even before when I was working, I really didn’t have regular contact with anyone as young as Caitlin because I don’t have any grandchildren. Even the people I worked with were younger than me, by 20 or 30 years.” Jean continued, “I have some nieces and nephews, but again they’re married, starting their own families, so I’m missing out, except for Caitlin, on that generation, so you’re very important to me in that respect.”
Caitlin: “Same here. I used to have my grandparents to talk to from that side of the [family] and now that my grandpa’s gone and my grandma has dementia, I have my dad’s mom on the other side, but we, I definitely talked to my other grandparents more growing up, so having lost that, it was nice to have somebody that I talk to on a consistent basis from that generation.”
Jean and Caitlin were genuinely curious about each other’s life and opinions, and willing to share vulnerabilities.
Jean mentioned that Caitlin had faced a challenging illness, which made the 21-year-old more relatable to the 91-year-old.
Jean: “I think, this more than anything else made me feel very close to her, that she shared that and the strength that she showed to overcome that and also because as we age, even if we remain healthy, there are a lot of physical challenges. So right there, there was a good special connection, I think.” Jean clarified: “I think because she had that special challenge, it was something that I felt privileged that she shared with me, but also, I felt a closeness because it was a very difficult personal experience…that brings you closer to someone when they share a difficult experience.”
In other assignments, I ask students to talk with their grandparents or other older relatives about specific issues like whether they ever experienced ageism, how they feel about being called hon or sweetie, and end of life wishes. These topics are not typically broached in most families.
Jean recognized the assignment she undertook with Caitlin as a special opportunity.
Jean: “This was especially meaningful to me because I have no grandchildren, but in talking with other people my age who have grandchildren, they visit them, but the family set-up is not one that’s conducive to having the kind of in-depth conversation that Caitlin and I enjoyed. It’s a social occasion and so everybody has to be happy and pleasant and unless there are a few people that live close enough to grandchildren who are almost grown, that they’re able to do things individually with them, then there’s that kind of a relationship. But in family settings very often there isn’t the meaningful conversation. There isn’t the time and it’s probably not the place where it’s done. It’s a social occasion, so everybody is happy at its surface, you know.”
How to establish an intergenerational friendship
It can be highly rewarding to befriend people of different life stages. Given the mutual comfort and respect Jean and Caitlin shared, I asked them for any advice they have for others interested in striking up an intergenerational friendship.
Jean: “I think Caitlin would be better to answer.”
Caitlin: “I would say go into it with an open mind. I know personally from our class when this assignment was introduced everybody had that look on their face of like what are we going to do? What do you mean we have to do this by ourselves kind of look on their face…
Jean: “What do we talk about?”
Caitlin: “Yeah, everybody was going into it was really scared. Either they said that out loud or they just had that look on their face of, oh gosh, it’s here, we actually have to do this now. And so just go into it with an open mind. You definitely have more in common than you think, and it’s just a conversation. You’re just talking to another human being. Age is just a number. That’s my advice.”
Jean: “So age really scares a lot of young people then?”
Jean: “Well, I think part of that is still to blame on our view of age in America. We say that we don’t have ageism anymore, but we do. I mean starting with the job market…I think we make generalities the way we did formerly more about women. Women can’t do this or that. I relate to that a lot because I still remember the changes in my, just in my time that have happened for women. And we still do that with youth as well whether it’s a youthful candidate or a youthful person. So, we do tend to categorize very much by age, and we shouldn’t because there are young people that are brilliant even though they’re in their early twenties, and there are people that are beyond the pale and they’re in their forties.”
So, what difference does 70 years make in a friendship?
Not much, assuming you have access to meeting people of different generations. An interest in learning about someone new and a willingness to talk and listen are all you need to find common interests, common ground, and meaningful connection.
One of the last questions I asked each of them was how they would describe the other.
Jean described Caitlin as empathetic, bubbly, very easy to talk with, a good listener, and optimistic, which Jean said she really likes in anyone of any age. Caitlin described Jean as vibrant, very interesting, in-depth, easy to talk with, and very, very intelligent on a multitude of topics.
The friends ended by saying they wanted to keep in touch.
Jean: “I would like to find out how you’re doing and what’s happening because this is such a difficult and pivotal time for you, Caitlin. I’m so interested in, you know, what is going to happen in your future. I would like to hear about it.”
Caitlin: “Yeah, definitely. Also, just to add it in, thank you for the birthday card. It came on my birthday!”
Most people would love more friendships like this, at every age and stage of life.
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