‘There’s nothing but old fellows in there; I’d rather be with younger people’

Intergenerational friends give joy, belonging and connectedness in daily life to all ages

The study aimed to explore IGFs to better understand their role in how older people experience old age and friendship at that time of life

The study aimed to explore IGFs to better understand their role in how older people experience old age and friendship at that time of life

 

In Clive James’s 2007 essay on Egon Friedell, he writes: “Whether we like it or not, individuality is the product of a collective existence.” This reminded me of my friend Dolly – in her nineties – whose undoubted individuality, I believe, is bolstered by the collective range of friendships she has cultivated with people of all ages. Dolly’s zest for life makes her eyes sparkle, rendering irrelevant the physical evidence of her ageing, and our conversations run hither and thither, unconstrained by any recognition of notional conventions implying that a so-called age gap may exist between us.

My relationship with Dolly is defined as an intergenerational friendship (IGF), which is one between a chronologically old and a significantly younger adult. I learned this from Irish research recently published in the Journal of Aging Studies.

The study aimed to explore IGFs to better understand their role in how older people experience old age and friendship at that time of life. Its findings are based on interviews with 23 over-65s, and was led by Dr Catherine Elliott O’Dare, who recently completed her PhD research on IGF, supervised by Virpi Timonen and Catherine Conlon of the School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin. Elliott O’Dare is a part-time lecturer, and researcher, in social policy and social gerontology at Trinity.

Older people and the experience of becoming and being long-lived are rich with a myriad of meanings and experiences

One of the study’s most striking insights “is that many spoke of looking forward to the future, along with speaking of looking back at the past. They spoke of wanting to develop, to continue to learn and being open to forming new friendships.”

Changing social norms

For 66-year-old Anne, for example, younger friends mediate her exposure to social change, allowing her to experience changing social norms and viewpoints. And Breda (82 years), referring to a nearby segregated older-age social group, observes: “There’s nothing but old fellows in there; I’d rather be with younger people . . . You [younger people] don’t moan, you don’t want to be boring.”

But at a time when the medicalisation of old age looms large in society, to what extent might this be to the detriment of IGFs? O’Dare told The Irish Times that researchers and policymakers recognise the importance of social interaction and inclusion for the wellbeing of people of all ages. O’Dare notes that in the UK “social prescribing” is supported within the NHS, and in Ireland a “loneliness taskforce” was recently formed: “The impetus for our research,” she adds, “was to support a broader, more diverse, conversation around the experience of old age and friendship in older age. Older people and the experience of becoming and being long-lived are rich with a myriad of meanings and experiences that merit representation in research and literature.”

O’Dare examined IGFs from the perspective of older people. But given the apparent technology-based exigencies of everyday life, to what extent might the screen-based interests of younger people - perhaps older people too - interfere with building IGFs?

Older people and their ‘younger’ friends are engaged in diverse leisure activities, interests and hobbies that cement friendships
Older people and their ‘younger’ friends are engaged in diverse leisure activities, interests and hobbies that cement friendships

“The research”, says O’Dare, “suggests that older people and their ‘younger’ friends are engaged in diverse leisure activities, interests and hobbies that cement friendships, that act as conduits to IGF formation and flourishing.” Interestingly, O’Dare found that some older interviewees spoke of seeking guidance from their younger friends on aspects of technology. “So, in this context,” she explains, “the use of technology is a ‘good thing’ for IGF.”

Trends

In an Irish context, have there been any observable trends in IGFs over time? “Although,” says O’Dare, “the available research on IGF is limited, recent quantitative research suggests that intergenerational friendships are prevalent in Ireland and elsewhere.”

This refers to a recent report by Dr Sarah Gibney and colleagues entitled Positive Ageing in Age-Friendly Cities and Counties: Local Indicators for Ireland (2018). Among its findings were that 60 per cent of those aged 55 to 69 years had one or more friends aged under 30 years, compared with 38 per cent of over-70s.

I was puzzled, therefore, at the lack of research on IGF, given the importance of these friendships in my life

O’Dare’s findings have implications for policy and practice. “As I argue in the paper,” she explains, “much of the policy enacted in contemporary societies is concerned with the wellbeing of people as they attain older age. Organisations and individuals with interests within the broader context of the third sector ( befriending, community and social inclusion, loneliness interventions) and state interventions (ageism, ageing in place, active ageing) should find the insights developed through this research valuable for their ongoing work in contributing to the understanding of how ‘ordinary’ older people seek enjoyment, belonging and IGF in older age.”

O’Dare is planning further research on IGF in an international context, but what led her to pursue this line of research in the first place? “I have IGFs, both younger and older than me, along with peer-aged friends, and I was puzzled, therefore, at the lack of research on IGF, given the importance of these friendships in my life. This was the main impetus to pursue research on the topic,” she explains. “Anyone who reads this research may recognise the value of IGFs to older people: as older friends, the older people in this study spoke of seeking joy, belonging and connectedness in everyday life through their IGFs.”

I can see this is going to be another talking point between Dolly and me when we meet up again.

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