In 1999, an old woman with no family or friends died in San Diego. County employees were sent to clean out her house.
“This woman had been dead for several days in her home, which was a filthy, cluttered mess,” said Pamela Smith, who was then the director of aging services for San Diego County. “Her last years had obviously not been pleasant ones, and at the time of her death the place was literally a rat’s nest.”
“Somehow, this woman had simply disappeared from the community.”
How elders in San Diego are tackling the area’s biggest problems.
Then, as Smith and her colleagues sifted through the woman’s belongings, they made a startling discovery: she had once been a teacher.
“It is heartbreaking to think society didn’t stay connected with her, to continue to value her talents,” Smith said. “What a difference she could have made in a child’s life, and her own, if we had found a way for her to know we still valued her, and needed her.”
Smith vowed to change the way the whole county thought about elders.
“We really wanted to say, ‘Wait a minute, we need to step back and realize that never before in the history of the world have we had this many people live this long who are this well educated, who are this capable, who have this much to offer,’” Smith recalled. “And that we really needed to start looking at the resources that older adults bring to the table.”
Elders themselves needed to realize this, too, according to Smith.
“You do have a lot to offer,” she started telling them. “You’re not just put out to pasture.”
A lot of kids in San Diego were growing up under trying circumstances and without enough adult support, Smith knew. Could elders be mobilized to help them?
In 2001, she hired an “intergenerational coordinator,” and together, they got to work.
A new boarding school for foster teens, San Pasqual Academy, had recently opened in Escondido. Nationwide, only about half of foster teens graduate from high school, and the academy, a partnership between the county and a nonprofit organization, aimed to help local kids beat the odds.
It also aimed to help the kids emotionally. Many of them had been bouncing from dwelling to dwelling for years, and school leaders hoped they’d finally feel they were home.
So Smith and her staff helped recruit a crew of elders, or “grandparents,” to live in ten empty homes on the campus, which had previously housed a parochial school. The grandparents were offered below-market rent in return for devoting themselves to the kids.
“It was like magic from day one,” said Smith. “It was a win for everybody because the kids now had these people who cared about them, that they didn’t want to let down,” she said. “And of course, the older adults felt needed and important, and they thrived.”
One of the first grandparents to arrive was Jean Cornwell Wheat, a painter and sculptor who collaborates with students on art projects and takes them to museums, plays, and poetry slams off campus. “Most of the foster kids have never experienced anything like that,” said Wheat. “It just opens up the world a little bit more for them.”
But primarily, she said, “I am just there to love them.”
The integration of elders into San Pasqual Academy was so successful that it attracted the attention of the media, elected officials, and public and private agencies around the county, many of which asked Smith and her coordinator to help them start intergenerational programs, too.
In some cases, all it took was for the right people to start talking.
For example, at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, many kids weren’t applying themselves, and their grades were suffering as a result. Through a senior center a few blocks away, the school connected with Bill Stark, a widower with a passion for chess. Soon, Stark was spending two mornings a week at the school teaching the game he loved to dozens of kids—on the condition that they’d turned in their homework that day.
“The kids who wanted to play were the unlikeliest kids, not the honors students,” said Judy Kirk, a teacher. “It meant a lot to them to have this kind of attention from Bill.”
“He wouldn’t just teach them moves. He taught them etiquette, the manners of the game. He taught them to shake hands before and after the game. They were to push in their chairs before they left.”
The experience was equally valuable for Stark, who died in 2005.
“The last two years of Bill’s life were filled with joy and reward,” said Smith. “He wasn’t sitting home watching TV and depressed that he was no longer needed.”
Since the early 2000s, San Diego County has created four more intergenerational coordinator positions and established dozens of thriving programs, most of which seek to build intimate, sustained relationships between kids and elders. Many programs also try to make both groups healthier.
In 2012, for instance, a preschool in El Cajon worked with the county to create a fruit and vegetable garden that’s jointly tended by students and a team of elder volunteers, known as “Garden Grannies.” Twice a week, the grannies show the kids how to dig, plant, weed, and harvest, and when the day’s work is done, they feast.
The garden keeps both generations active and teaches the youngsters about nutrition.
“Today’s kids have little concept of whole foods and eating what’s grown in the garden,” said volunteer and veteran gardener Pat Loughlin. “Ask them where orange juice comes from and they’ll tell you ‘out of the refrigerator.’”
“That little hour you get with those little faces and you see the light bulb go on—it is just amazing,” she said.
There are also programs that unite young and old for a single but memorable day.
Once a year at several sites around the county, elementary school students and elders gather for the “Intergenerational Games.” Each child is matched with an elder buddy for a morning of sports and a nutritious lunch, and though the event only lasts a few hours, some kids leave forever changed.
“Once I thought people at your age could not do many things, but you showed me you can,” one girl wrote to her buddy in a thank-you note. “YOU ARE AWESOME!”
Wrote another girl, “When I grow up I will be what you are, do what you do, and think what you think. Thank you for caring, loving, and watching me.”
This post is adapted from a report I recently wrote with Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, “I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.”