Intergenerational Friendships

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Who did you call during the pandemic when you needed to talk to someone or to get out for some fresh air? 

I wonder if any of those friends were older or younger than you. 

The pandemic opened our eyes to the value of our friendships and challenged us to reassess the friendships that might be in need of nurturing. Some of the more casual friends may have already dropped off our radar and those friends who were there for us during our extended state of emergency are most likely to be the keepers. 

Birthday cards abound with messages that age is a matter of the mind – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Or, age is just a number. 

There is truth to these corny sayings!  I enjoy my relationships with co-workers and shul friends who are young enough to be my children and with older women and men who could be my parents. 

Isn’t that part of what makes the world go round? 

The Many Faces of Friendship 

There is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to friends. Friends can play the part of confidantes, companions, as well as mentors and mentees.  Friendships may strengthen or weaken depending on one’s stage of life or due to geography. 

It’s no surprise that in our guide to daily living, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, we are urged to Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person as meritorious (Mishnah 1:6 of Pirkei Avot).” 

If we are not locked down, we might connect with people of all ages every day, at work, at medical appointments, at the supermarket, and at a host of other places for various occasions.  Our labor force is made up of several generations and provides us with opportunities to develop relationships with individuals of varying age groups. Intergenerational friendships, those between individuals of different ages, can evolve into the most rewarding and deepest relationships.   

According to a 2020 AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) survey, “nearly four in ten adults (37 percent) have a close friend who is at least 15 years older or younger than they are.  Almost half (45 percent) of close intergenerational friendships have lasted at least ten years and one in five has lasted for more than two decades. These friendships are equally common among men and women, though boomers and Gen Xers more often have friends of a different generation than millennials.” 

So, what are some of the benefits of intergenerational friendships? 

Inspiring Role Models 

Research indicates that younger people often find that older friends add a new dimension to their lives.  They can serve as mentors and provide helpful guidance or life lessons and can even be like your own private life coach.  Those who have lived a long life have experienced major milestones and have learned to cope with life’s adversities. They can be a calming influence and can offer wise counsel on how to cope and how to appreciate the good things in life and the good times.  Younger adults who responded to the 2020 AARP Survey said that they were inspired by older friends and viewed them as role models. 

Surveying some of the millennials in my orbit, several noted that their older friends are more mature, are often less judgmental, and are less petty than friends of the same age. Some find great comfort in seeking council from someone who has significant life experience. Their advice is always honest, and informed by their experiences.  One younger friend commented about older friends, “They teach me to see things from other people’s point of view, and we tend to cooperate rather than compete.” 

I recall my daughter’s friends chatting me up at her sleepover parties or asking me for tips about relationships and careers.  Sometimes it can be easier or it feels safer to talk to a parent figure, someone else’s mom or dad, rather than one’s own parent. 

From the younger person’s viewpoint, intergenerational friendships can be nurturing and instructive, can help one to grow personally, and can enable the younger friend to gain new perspectives.   

Older /Younger Friends Simply Enjoy the Connection 

Those who have close intergenerational friendships have found that it is not always about the older person being a “patient teacher or wellspring of advice for the younger one.”  At times, it is simply about two people connecting, being like-minded, and having similar interests or passions such as loving to bake, paint, or run. 

My adult daughter treasures her relationship with her cousin Sally who is 50 years older.  She first met Sally at her bat mitzvah and adopted her as a surrogate grandmother. They share common interests, such as visiting museums, and enjoy each other’s company greatly. 

Who Is Wise? 

Here is another gem from Pirkei Avot. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. And we see that older people have much to learn from the younger set, too. An older person, such as yours truly, can see things in a new light or can consider a fresh view when engaging with a young friend, colleague, or adult child.  My adult children often help me tackle sticky relationship situations and remind me to put myself in someone else’s shoes.  And, of course, my kids have pushed me to learn how to navigate boundaries.  Debbie Pincus, a licensed mental health counselor and author, defines a boundary as “the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and where your child begins.”  Parents tend to cross boundaries in their desire to fix things for their children.  

Adult children or younger friends can provide lessons on technology and may also shed more light on politics and current events.  My son Jacob, a journalist, helped me edit my articles and gave me terrific tips when I started writing for Community.  I continue to receive wonderful advice on self-care and creating joy from my daughter Sarah. 

I will always remember when I was asked to take on a new financial reporting role at Bristol-Myers Squibb, around 20 years ago. My position was being moved to Princeton, NJ and I was offered another job that involved learning a whole range of information technology skills. Thanks to four or five younger colleagues, I learned how to upload, filter, and slice and dice computer files.  Their support allowed me to remain with that company and partner with my husband to provide for our family.  Can you believe that as an accounting major in the 1970s, I was not required to take even one computer class?  Although I was 15 years older than most of my colleagues, I was a welcome and valued member of the team. 

I can proudly say that thanks to those work friends, I am still tech savvy, and that keeps me feeling young and in touch with what is happening in the world. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention my dear friend Yolanda, who I shared a cubicle wall with.  Fifteen years younger and of a different religion, she and I connected spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.  When she left Bristol-Myers, I followed her shortly thereafter to a consulting firm. Yolanda became a friend and mentor, and sometimes the younger sister I never had. 

Working and socializing with younger people can keep an older person on her toes, feeling sharp, and with it!   

One of my close friends, Reba, is 76, and has many friends of all ages.  Several are in their mid-twenties, and she cherishes her time with them.  “They make me feel young, energetic, happy, useful, inclusive, and loved. I thank Hashem that they are a part of my life.”  Her young friends value her practical advice, and she admires their maturity, independence, and worldly awareness.  She enjoys when they look to her for guidance, and she feels respected and appreciated.  Listening to Reba, I realize that intergenerational friendships are about reciprocity, respect, and having fun too! 

Intergenerational Friendships and Volunteering 

Volunteering is a fabulous way for the younger and older generations to really experience the magic of intergenerational friendships and to do hesed. 

Sing on Hanukah or hand out mishloah manot at a nursing home.  Or dance and enjoy activities with seniors at Sephardic Bikur Holim.   

The 50-plus age group represents a tremendous resource when they volunteer.  One example is the UJA Engage Jewish Service Corps that enables Jewish women and men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond to address the needs of the NYC Jewish community. Volunteers use their passions, areas of expertise, and skill sets to tackle issues such as hunger, poverty, joblessness, the special-needs population, and the isolated elderly.  

I leave you with Rabbi Akiva’s sage advice about friendship: “Don’t walk ahead of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead; just walk beside me and be my friend and together we will walk in the way of Hashem.” 

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.  Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching.   Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com (www.lifecoachellen.com).