My first journalism job was a summer internship at a newspaper on New York’s Long Island. I was fresh out of graduate school, older than many of my fellow interns and in a relatively new city.
I rented a room from Carol, who lived on a quiet street in Suffolk County. It had been almost a decade since I had lived with another person. Carol is 35 years my senior and, that summer, she became one of my closest confidantes and most sage advisers.
She was the first older person, outside of my family, I considered a friend.
We spent a lot of time together — going to church, making plans to tour Harlem and visiting the lighthouse at Montauk Point.
I helped Carol navigate her computer. She helped me navigate my life.
Once, when a source for a story called and accused me of misquoting her, I burst into tears. Carol made tea and launched an inquisition.
“Did you record the interview?” She asked.
“Was your story accurate?”
“Then this is not your problem.”
Another time, when I agonized over attending an event, Carol shared advice that I have repeated to myself time and again for the past 20 years. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she said.
My friendship with Carol helped me grow that summer, and the experience helped me understand the ways in which a new acquaintance can impact your life, particularly when that person is two generations ahead of you.
It should be as normal to build an intergenerational friendship as it is to connect to someone in the same age group, but ageism is deeply embedded in American society.
Positive connections can chip away at persistent stereotypes about the other generations, as well as prejudices like those fueled by the hyped-up Boomer vs. Millennial war.
That is one of the reasons organizations like Generations United exist, to promote positive intergenerational relationships, said spokeswoman Sheri Steinig.
About 1 in 6 people in the U.S. were age 65 or older in 2020, according to census data. So maybe it’s time to do away with generational thinking and just learn from each other.
Except for gender and religion, Carol and I are different in many of the traditional demographic categories. That summer, our commonalities became the foundation on which we could talk about our differences.
She would make tea, and we would sit at her tiny kitchen table and discuss all of the topics that are supposed to be off limits — race, politics, religion, sex. We may not have been changing each other’s minds, but we were connecting our hearts.
The more people have these kinds of experiences, the more we will see the normalcy and benefit of intergenerational friendships.
Sometimes, you may have to step out of your comfort zone to make these friendships happen, but there are more opportunities than ever before to do it.
With older people working longer, many intergenerational friendships start in the workplace.
Older Americans are also engaging in activities and indulging their interests later in life, bringing them in more frequent contact with younger people.
In 2020, Arizona State University opened a campus-based retirement community, a relatively new form of housing for older adults that prioritizes aging in community and facilitates intergenerational relationships. A similar community was built on the campus of Georgia’s Berry College.
“Intergenerational connectivity is a boon and a promoter of longevity,” said David Cravit, who co-authored, with Larry Wolf, “SuperAging: Getting Older Without Getting Old.” He noted that many older Americans are more receptive than ever before to engaging with younger people in ways that extend beyond the traditional role of grandparents.
It had been a while since I talked with Carol. But, when I called to make sure she was OK with me writing about her in this column, I was so happy to hear her voice.
We reminisced about the time we spent together, which included another stint of me living with her when I moved back to New York to work full-time.
I told her I was a columnist now, and she said she was proud.
She told me she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of her new computer, and I laughed.
Carol lives on the same street, in the same house with the same tiny kitchen table. And, for that moment last week, despite the time and distance, it felt as if I was right there again.
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