Bridging the Generation Gap

Cultural, social and communication gaps between generations are a reality that can hinder enriching relationships with our parents. The challenges arising from generation gaps are even higher when the parent belongs to a completely different era

Amma was born in 1939. India was not even an independent country. 202 The world’s first transatlantic passenger flight had taken place just a month before she was born. 203 It would be another seven years for the first computer in the world to start working. 204 Apple referred solely to a fruit, and laptops were places where children played. And someone walking on the road  seemingly talking to himself would have been hauled to a nearby mental hospital.

She was born in a generation that most people born after 1970 simply cannot relate to.

Many times, it is tempting to give up interacting with old people because of this vast generation gap.

It is not going to get any easier in the foreseeable future.

So should we give up?

That would be a pity.

Catering to her amma’s health and comfort required some amount of work, but this was fairly well defined, and as a result I think I did a pretty good job. Engaging with her was quite a different matter, requiring skills and temperament that I simply did not possess. My performance was most likely average in this context.

Yet, during the five years when I was really close to amma, we managed to have enough interesting experiences. I had not put down any specific design for most of my interactions – many of these were instinctive and were mostly motivated by a fundamental desire to make her happy.

Now that I think back on these experiences, I can see some patterns that I followed which could be of use to others keen on engaging better with their old parents, in spite of the generation gap.

Engaging with them as a group: Lengthy individual interactions with octogenarians or nonagenarians could be quite difficult. But interesting interactions can be had when you engage them as part of a group of people, some of whom could be fairly old themselves. In my case, this meant taking amma out to select family functions that people from different age groups attend, or making it a point to have brief group interactions that included amma when elders from outside visited our house.

Bridging the gap through children – The second is to get a baby or a small child from the house as a bridge for enriching relationships. Of course, not every house has a baby or a small child, but those of you lucky to have one can explore how to get these small critters to play with old people as much as possible, and use these occasions to have common fun. With children around, all of us become children at heart and there is no generation gap! Interestingly, in this effort, the baby or the child provides the bridge between the young and the old.

Align interests, desires and needs – The third avenue I can think of is to identify things that are of interest to an elder which is also of interest or relevance to you. In our case, it was cricket, a sport most Indians are fanatical about. The other thing was her interest in shopping for clothes, something that I hated to do but had to occasionally do. By taking her to apparel shops whenever I needed to shop for clothes, I was satisfying my needs while satisfying her desires. The third was reciting slokas (Hindu religious verses), something of high value to her, and something I liked doing as well.

Fig 61: Sweet spots for engagement with old parents: My experience shows that (at least for people with my temperament) ideas that focuses on group activities, aligns interests or brings children into the activity makes these engagements with old parents far more feasible and enriching

It could be infeasible to make an old generation person get new generation interests, and impractical for a current generation person to adapt to old generation habits. What could break the jinx are the right bridges that can enable different generations to meet somewhere midway or stay where they are and still somehow make interactions happen. Not easy, but not impossible either. 

Fig 62: Engaging with seniors: one size doesn’t fit all: Depending on our temperament, we may want to design engagements with old people – perhaps short and inspiring engagements for those with poor temperaments (like me) and well-planned detailed activities for those with a more stable temperament and longer attention spans.

Old lives matter <= Bridging the generation gap => Is feeling the meaning?

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Notes

202. India achieved independence from the British in August 1947.

203. Pan American inaugurated the world’s first transatlantic passenger service on June 28, 1939, between New York and Marseilles, France

204. The ENIAC was invented by Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania; its  construction began in 1943 and not completed in 1946

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