When I was a little girl, the average age of my friends was about 45. That's because I liked to hang out with, in addition to my schoolmates, the comedian pals of my father, Danny Thomas, and listen to them tell jokes. Then there were all those bustling producers and manic directors I'd meet at the movie studio when my father took me to work with him. And, of course, there was my maternal grandmother, who well into her 70s played drums in a beer garden in Pasadena. Grandma was a trip — feisty, funny and talented — and she was my role model. And my friend.
Although I didn't know it at the time, I was enjoying what is now called multigenerational bonding, which has become something of a studied science. According to the Pew Research Center, about 51 million Americans live in a home that boasts at least two adult generations, a 10 percent increase over a three-year period. That's a lot of bonding. And experts note that intergenerational mingling is a healthy thing — especially for older people.
"After they retire," says Terry Hokenstad, Ph.D., professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and consultant to the United Nations on aging policy, "the degree of intergenerational bonding has a direct positive relationship with the quality of life. Through Facebook alone, we're seeing greater and more vibrant interaction between seniors and younger generations."
But personal relationships do not live by the Internet alone, which makes it difficult for some to connect with the younger generation in a meaningful way. How can older people build and maintain that important bridge, especially if their kids have moved away, or if they don't have children? Granted, it's hard not to worry about being written off as a prehistoric know-nothing, older than old and clueless about the high-tech world around us. But the truth is, we all bridge the generational divide every day. The woman at the salon who cuts your hair? She's young enough to be your daughter, yet the conversations you share add something special to the texture of your life. That's bonding. And what about your neighbor's kid — the one who fixes your drainpipe or helps you set up your modem? That's bonding, too.
You can also be proactive in new friendships. Is there someone at your gym, or in your book club, whom you'd like to connect with, if only you were their age? What's stopping you? Don't make defensive jokes about how old you are, or try to force your wisdom and experience on them. Simply smile and introduce yourself, the way you would with a contemporary. Share a bit of your story. Listen to theirs. You many not get a BFF out of it, but you might just be surprised at the connection you make.
The benefits of multigenerational bonding are plentiful, and I've seen this up close, ever since starting my own website in 2011. In the course of a typical day, I will meet with my editorial team, many of them 20- and 30-somethings, and their smarts and passion inspire me.
Among these young guns is my niece Kate, a film wiz who helped me create my site. As a documentary journalist, she knew how to shoot on the fly; and as a longtime producer, I knew how to tell a story. Our collaboration was ageless.
And then after work, I'll go out to dinner with some of my pals whom I've worked with in television. My dear old friend from my That Girl days, writer Bill Persky (83 going on 39), is a favorite dinner date. He puts life in perspective for me, and never fails to remind me that getting older is just a state of mind.
"At least 197 of the 206 bones in my body are telling me to stop," he once said to me, "but, fortunately, my brain doesn't listen." Billy always makes me laugh, and laughter crosses all generations.
And I've always felt that way. That's because the people I've chosen to be with since the very beginning — from my father's friends to Billy to the younger people who work with me on my website — have always been funny and smart and engaging. And if you're entertaining, it doesn't matter to me if you're 17 or 70 — I'm interested.
John Lennon once noted, "Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears" — and I truly believe that. In the end, the people with whom we share life are our own beautiful melting pot: the peers with whom we talk in shorthand (and we trust to get our jokes!), the younger people who open our eyes to new and fascinating things, the elders if we're fortunate enough to still have them in our lives. That's the big secret of intergenerational bonding: It knows no age.
Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas appears online at marlothomas.com
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