In America, we know, youth has become king. Ours is a culture that tends to worship youthfulness with uncanny fervor, which can leave older adults feeling less than relevant, while depriving the young and old of vital chances to connect and learn from one another.
In some ways, the rapid advance of technology has furthered that divide. Older adults often struggle to keep up with technological tools like texting and email that have long since become basic to younger generations. That knowledge gap can leave them feeling left behind and increasingly isolated from the very technologies that could foster greater connection to the world around them.
Enter a program funded by the AARP foundation called Mentor Up, the brainchild of former AARP CEO Joanne Jenkins and AARP Foundation vice-president Kamali Wilson. Mentor Up seeks to foster “intergenerational relationships” between youth and older adults, while helping older adults learn and stay up to date on technology as a means of reducing their isolation.
“We were very focused on how we could engage young people in the work of the AARP Foundation,” Wilson says of the genesis of the program. “It was around 2012 and we observed the power of influence young people were having in social spaces when they embraced causes that were meaningful to them.”
First piloted in 2013, in 2014 Mentor Up began to partner with youth organizations, such as the National 4H Council and DoSomething.org, to introduce intergenerational service to youth members already engaged in social advocacy, social engagement, leadership, and volunteerism.
Though Wilson admits they were skeptical at first that they could “make young people care about anything other than themselves,” their hopes were bolstered when they met with a local boys’ Jesuit high school that had begun a campus kitchens program. Twelve young men volunteered their time after school to prepare and deliver meals to a senior residence within walking distance of their school. “We asked them why they did it,” says Wilson. “Not one said for credit. It was all about how it made them feel or how they’d grown up in families committed to volunteerism and service.”
When Mentor Up began focus groups and shared with young people the problems older adults were facing—nearly 9 million without sufficient food, 20 million without sufficient income and more of them living in isolation or loneliness —“the [youth] wanted to know what tangible actions they could take to help,” Wilson says. She knew then that the program had real potential to make an impact.
Using Tech to Connect
Though Mentor Up is designing programs to help with a variety of issues that are relevant to older adults, including meal service and health initiatives, its wheelhouse is tech support, in large part because high school and college-aged kids are native technology users, with many possessing little to no memory of life before smartphones and iPads.
Anthony Levy, 21, a soon-to-be senior at the University of Colorado, Boulder is a poster child for the success of Mentor Up’s mission. Levy has always been close to his grandmother and missed having regular contact with her when he went to college. He became interested in intergenerational relationship-building via Mentor Up as a freshman, through the organization’s partnership with his university. Levy continued working with the program for a year and a half, and has mentored as many as 30 older adults, teaching skills such as how to Skype with grandkids, learn the basics of an iPhone, or even code a website.
“I’ve gotten so much out of it,” Levy says. “Tangible things include gardening lessons or learning from someone who lived through the Great Depression. Intangible things include having a friend to hang out with, someone who feels like family, or maybe an adopted grandparent.”
Levy was so inspired by these connections he formed his own organization, tBridges, whose mission is “Bridging generations through technology education.” He is particularly focused on teaching younger generations to look beyond their technology and get engaged in social and civic causes. “There’s plenty of really awesome things in this world that don’t involve a screen,” he says.
tBridges recently partnered with AARP through Mentor Up to throw a mixer, 50 adults and 50 youths, to “share knowledge with each other and really just have fun breaking down some of the barriers that both groups have,” says Levy. He’s particularly passionate about busting the stereotypes of generational groups. “Pop culture and the media put these stereotypes in the minds of young people, when many older adults are extremely sharp. If you ask them how they feel, they say they don’t feel 80 or 90. It’s really great to be able to make them feel they are still relevant and a significant part of society today.”
He hopes that by bringing the generations together in social ways, and then fostering “meaningful conversations” about big social issues like equality, justice and education, we will eventually be able to bring about “positive change.”
Many of the youth who get involved with older adults are pleasantly surprised by the depth of the connections, a happy side effect of tech support. Hannah Chambers, 17, of Georgetown, Texas, participates in a Mentor Up program called Wired Wednesdays at the local library. Once a month, people bring their devices and ask questions or get tech support. Chambers also goes with a small group to an assisted living home called the Wesleyan once a month, where she looks forward to seeing a senior who is originally from England, who shares stories from her life. “When you get us young kids with all these bright new ideas together with senior citizens with old customs and ideas, anything is possible,” she says.
Intergenerational connections seem to breed respect. Payton Holcomb, age 14, who connected with Mentor Up through her local 4H group in Texas, was quick to realize she owes much to those who came before. She says, “These older adults have paved the road for who we are today. They’ve done so much. So it’s good to help them and give back to them.”
And it isn’t only the youth setting up Mentor Up opportunities. Terri Totente, age 70, a retired former executive assistant, has organized several Mentor Up tech support events in Fruita, Colorado, where she lives, and in nearby Grand Junction. The older adults who signed up were paired with a student at a local high school to seek tech support.
“The kids were terrific. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe how polite and enthusiastic they were.” Totente had just bought an iPad, originally to take pictures, but found it more challenging than she expected. “I personally was very confused about the iCloud. They explained how it’s storage and taught me how to sync my iPad to my iPhone. That’s a bonanza because all the pictures I take with one go to the other.” She now also relies heavily on her iPad for email to stay in touch with volunteer organizations and friends from overseas.
While Mentor Up makes it easier for youth to direct themselves toward one form of intergenerational volunteerism, Wilson hopes kids will also take initiative in their own communities, in a variety of ways. “It might feel big or daunting, but we are surrounded by individuals who are in need of some form of assistance. It can be as simple as cutting an older neighbor’s lawn because they can’t do it or it's 90 degrees out. Young people have a powerful important role to play and can lessen the feelings of isolation and loneliness in older adults just by spending time.”
Levy agrees and exhorts fellow youth by saying, “Start by having a meaningful conversation with your grandparents. Be curious, ask them questions, and be active, open-minded listeners and you will learn a four-year degree’s worth of information.”
Makena McElroy, 15, a soon-to-be high school junior in California, regularly offers tech support to her grandmother and mother because it just comes naturally to her. “My grandma will say there are way too many things to keep up or know how to do everything, and so she just asks me,” she says. McElroy feels that many kids her age are versatile in technology, like a second language. She’s seen students in class help teachers when they’ve struggled. “For [older adults] looking at a computer might be scary or overwhelming, but because I understand it more I can approach the problem without being overwhelmed.” She was even able to help her mother fix a formatting issue in Microsoft Word that the technicians could not figure out.
Totente, who worked in New York’s World Trade Center for much of her career, remembers the first day they brought “this big, bulky thing called a computer” to her desk. Unclear how it was any different from or better than a typewriter, she felt intimidated and slow to catch up with technology. “Because I was never schooled in tech it was very painful for me. It’s not intuitive to me. I see my great-niece, who is two, touching the iPad with ease. [Kids] have grown up with it; it’s always been in their life.”
She adds that the youths’ assistance through the Mentor Up program not only taught her how to use her iPad, it gave her the “freedom” to explore the technology further and connect to social media, particularly Facebook, which she calls “an eye-opening experience.” Now, the woman who never quite got the hang of a computer knows “what Taylor Swift did yesterday with social media.”
“I don’t have to be afraid of technology now,” she concludes. “I’ve been having a good time with it.”
Read more about how to connect with Mentor Up.