Building Healthy Individuals, Healthy Communities through Intergenerational Programming

By Miranda Saroli, Knowledge Mobilization & Social Action Coordinator, Access Alliance
Newcomer youth getting a knitting lesson through Access Alliance’s Knead, Knit, Neat program

Using Knitting to Forge Connection across Generations

Excited chatter and laughter echoes across the large community space, drowning out the rhythmic clicking of needles. The scene could not get more wholesome: youth and seniors, knitting together, and greatly enjoying themselves while sharing stories and life experiences. Knitting is a skill and hobby that many associate with older generations; however, here were seniors and youth, teaching and learning from each other.

Knead, Knit, Neat: An Intergenerational Learning Space was a project run by Access Alliance in 2021, which invited two generations of immigrants and refugees to come together, exchange their knowledge and experiences, and ultimately bond with each other while learning or teaching a new skill.

Yasmin Aliraj, a program participant from Trinidad and a grandmother herself, looked forward to the weekly knitting sessions. She described how, despite the age gap, this model of co-learning really helped to forge a connection among participants:

“Youth were very very engaging – they shared their knowledge with us. If they wanted to ask a question and they thought that we were further ahead, they would come to us and ask us to show them stuff. And vice versa, we would do the same.”

For Soraya, one of the newcomer youth participants, the learning experience had a big impact:

“As a teenager who ha(s) never knitted before, I was really amaz(ed) by how I knitted my own scarf thanks to the help of seniors there…I really enjoyed my time spending there and it was one of the best life experience I’ve had.”

Knead, Knit, Neat also ran programs for cooking and digital storytelling, and provided opportunities for participants to co-plan or co-facilitate sessions. In addition to fostering intergenerational bonding, the program aimed to break down social isolation, promote community interdependency, and renew participants’ sense of community and life-long learning.

A youth participant making cookies with help from seniors at a cooking session

There is a lot of research to show how intergenerational programming and initiatives can have real positive outcomes for seniors’ health and wellbeing, such as enhanced social networks, reduced depression, and even improved physical strength and cognitive ability.

But seniors aren’t the only winners. The Toronto Intergenerational Partnerships in Community lists a number of benefits for youth, such as a strengthened sense of social responsibility, healthier attitudes towards aging, and improved self-esteem. The intergenerational model has also been seen to work within other contexts, such as intergenerational housing where students are offered low-cost or even free housing to move in with a senior.

In the case of the Knead, Knit, Neat project, connecting with seniors through activities such as knitting, cooking, as well as sharing and capturing stories of the past in a digital format, helps youth to build a sense of culture, heritage and history. This can be particularly true for youth who were born in Canada to immigrant parents and who may feel disconnected from their cultural heritage, many of whose grandparents are still living abroad, back home.

Justin Mensah, a Youth Worker involved in the project, observed some interesting similarities among the participants’ experiences:

“Youth and seniors at Access Alliance have immigrated to Canada during different periods of time, yet have had similar experiences. During our digital storytelling program, we had youth and seniors express their difficulties with language, culture shock, accessing resources, and even getting used to our unpredictable weather patterns. It’s sobering to see that after all these decades in between we still have a lot of work to do.”

The Importance of Intergenerational Solidarity

In an era of rapid social and technological change, the interests and realities of seniors and youth seem to have less and less in common. However, the United Nations aims to bridge this divide. The theme of this year’s International Youth Day (on August 12) was ‘intergenerational solidarity’. It pushed for the need to leverage all generations’ strengths and knowledge in order to move forward with sustainable development goals such as ending world poverty and taking urgent action against climate change. This comes with a recognition that certain barriers prevent people from fully participating and contributing to society on the basis of age. Ageism, especially when combined with other forms of discrimination like racism and sexism, ultimately restricts what we can achieve as a society. Sometimes, those barriers are embedded within our societal structures and laws; for example, certain groups are advocating to lower the age of voting in Canada to allow youth greater involvement in the democratic process.

Other times, the barriers are simply physical. Access Alliance recently received funding to implement an innovative ‘Take Our Seniors Out (TOSO)’ by trishaw bike project (pictured below). The TOSO project is a perfect example of an intergenerational initiative that is helping to reduce social isolation among seniors, as well as improve their mobility and freedom. Scarborough Cycles, a program of Access Alliance, will be rolling out trishaw services for immigrant and refugee seniors this fall.

Marvin Macaraig of Scarborough Cycles taking a couple of elder clients out for a spin in a trishaw bike

Sustaining Health and Wellbeing into the Future

Promoting connection and bonding between youth and other generations is critical as we look to the future. Here, the concept of ‘intergenerational equity’ can be helpful to frame this discussion. While ‘social equity’ is based on the idea that everyone should have access to the resources and opportunities they need to live a full, happy, healthy life, ‘intergenerational equity’ takes this concept and draws it out over time, across generations, ultimately considering the rights of future generations. In other words, changes that aim to improve society must be sustainable, and inevitably require compassion and support across age groups.

“Intergenerational equity is a notion that views the human community as a partnership among all generations.” – Summers & Smith (2004)

Programs such as Knit, Knead, Neat help to build intergenerational empathy among seniors and youth who otherwise might feel they have nothing in common. Yasmin, for one, carries her newfound compassion with her beyond the program space: “Now when you’re walking on the street and see youth, you’re not hesitant to approach them, because you know they’re good children, they’re just trying to get by like everybody else.”

Youth and seniors ‘battle it out’ in a game of Scrabble

Building more opportunities for youth and seniors to interact and bond not only has immediate benefits for health and wellbeing, but it lays important groundwork for intergenerational collaboration in building stronger communities at the local or global level. Silvea Chowdhury, a Health Promoter at Access Alliance, draws the connection for us:

“I just finished a one week summer program; many of the kids were referred by their grandparents…that’s another way to engage other members of the family. Get the rest of the family involved by engaging the grandparents. That’s helping the whole family at the end of the day, and that’s helping the community.”

Silvea adds that bringing different age groups together can help to align interests in the community, as well as mobilize and utilize the strengths of each generation, which is a key part of building healthy communities. She wants to see more programming of this kind, such as in the form of tutoring (youth helping younger children) and computer literacy (youth teaching seniors).

Jasmine Thibault, Director of Community Programs at Access Alliance, considers the future of the intergenerational model at Access Alliance, and the ways we must be creative and flexible when designing programs: “There are many different avenues and directions for how this model can move forward, and we will continue to explore that.” Considering the multiple and varied benefits for different ages and demographics, we can definitely expect to see more intergenerational programs popping up at Access Alliance.