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Exploring the Power of Intergenerational Connections through a Virtual Mentorship Program

BY LINDSEY CHOO

The impacts of loneliness across generations have long been a topic of scientific deliberation and study. A 2020 UC San Diego study found that among approximately 3,000 survey participants of ages 20 to 69 from across the United States, loneliness was at its highest in the 20s, peaked again in the 40s, and was at the lowest in the 60s.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the country into quarantine,  Dr. Desiree Shapiro, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UC San Diego and Rady Children's Hospital, and Heidi Banh, a third year medical student at UC San Diego, teamed up to explore ways to help build community safely in hopes of decreasing loneliness.

The pair, who had met virtually in the summer of 2020 through the UC San Diego Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Inclusive Excellence (CAPIE) Program* which Shapiro directs and Banh is a trainee, discovered early on that they shared the dream of connecting youth and older adults to promote compassion and community wellbeing, especially through storytelling and sharing wisdom. Together, over the course of the year, they created a virtual intergenerational mentorship program for the San Diego community, and set out to study its feasibility of implementation as well as potential benefits on adolescents and older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social interaction and compassion amongst people are important regardless of age. "No matter what stage of life we are in, we all need connection, people who share our joys and believe in our dreams, and ways to give back to our community," Banh says. "When Dr. Shapiro and I brainstormed ideas for types of programs we could create, mentorship seemed like a natural blend of all of these. Especially when thinking of the youth impacted by a sudden shift to remote learning and the restricted visitation policies for senior homes at the initial peak of the pandemic; we had hope that a virtual intergenerational mentorship program had potential to create a space of shared learning, personalized mentorship, and the fostering of meaningful connections."

In addition, both co-program directors have been inspired and touched by their own experiences with their life mentors, and are passionate in promoting mentorship. "Slowly, our vision came together," Banh stated. "We recently launched our program in early 2021 after almost a year of planning, with the addition of our incredible program coordinator Anahi Ibarra, MPH, to our team. Seeing connections begin to blossom has been so heartwarming!"

The Program and Study

The intergenerational program's objectives are to increase social connectedness, resilience, and mental wellbeing. The unique 6-month program connects adolescent youth with older adults in retirement communities across San Diego. It strives to cultivate connection through conversation, through which participants can share experiences and wisdom. Participants are paired in a matching process based on mutual interests or passions, and the dyads meet once a month over Zoom, the video conferencing platform, to connect about life, lessons, and interests.

In addition to the one-on-one sessions, the participants also engage in monthly group discussions with all pairs, with different themes related to positive psychological characteristics, such as gratitude, self-compassion, and purpose. These sessions aim to promote a sense of community, positive coping, self-discovery, and the appreciation of common humanity through storytelling and meaningful dialoguing. They may also inspire individual pairs to continue the conversations in their own individual meetings. "Through open-ended conversation, and through sharing stories between generations, we hope that the participants appreciate the breadth of life experiences while finding support and unity in shared experience," Banh states.

The study will look for changes between baseline and post program measures of social connectedness, resilience, and mental wellbeing which are being measured through a mixed-methods research model. The team will also assess general attitudes towards older adults or adolescent youth and perceived abilities to connect with or to impact the other cohort's wellbeing. At the end of the program, feedback from the participants will be evaluated to improve future rounds and determine if there is potential for expansion in the future. Shapiro and Banh hope to explore and study a model that, once refined, other groups and regions may be interested in implementing.

Shapiro and Banh emphasize the significance of intergenerational programs, citing data from previous studies that have shown that nourishing intergenerational relationships have the power to promote well-being, resilience, generativity, positive youth development, and a decrease in ageism.

"As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I appreciate that one supportive adult can transform an adolescent's life trajectory," Shapiro says. "I believe this can be bi-directional and there is so much mutual benefit in bringing generations together. Seeing our first few sessions unfold, there is real reason to have hope in the world."

The Community Partners and Voices from Participants

Shapiro and Banh emphasize that the participants and their partners are at the core of their community-based effort. Early in the planning stage, they had reached out and proposed the idea of the intergenerational program to Wesley Palms and Casa de Mañana, two Front Porch Retirement Communities in San Diego, CA. The chaplains at each community were enthusiastic about the potential benefits for their residents, as well as for the opportunities to interact with and have a positive influence on youth.

Additionally, the youth volunteers were recruited from the Aaron Price Fellows Program, a leadership program for public high school students in San Diego County which aims to promote community engagement, and of which Shapiro is a proud alumna. She and Banh state that the input from all their partners was crucial in each stage of the program development and helped them mold the program to more intentionally serve the participants' unique needs and challenges.

"We are grateful to our participants who we have learned so much from," Shapiro expresses about the small cohort which ranges from ages 15 to 102. The participants are from diverse backgrounds, including immigrants and children of immigrants, aspiring first-generation college students, and individuals from varying professional careers and cultural and ethnic identities. Dr. Shapiro continues, "They have been extraordinary, motivated, and inspiring. As program directors, Heidi and I are humbled by the wisdom shared during our group sessions."

Participants were asked for reflections on their involvement in the program thus far, and permission was given to share the following voices:

"The program has quickly become something I look forward to because of the respectful, supportive, and open-minded nature of all the participants." -Isabel, mentee

"Living in a retirement community means that we don't often get to interact with younger people in a meaningful way; this program has provided that opportunity. I have enjoyed it." -Sue, mentor

"I think empathy and the inclination to listen wholeheartedly is the source of our world's vitality. With that said, I hope to provide my senior mentor with the sense that the space shared between us two is a space of respect and safety. I hope they can find in me a good listener and friend." -Taravat, mentee

"[I hope to gain] knowledge that I have been a positive influence and have helped him/her feel more positive about him/herself and to help them see the future as full of opportunities." -Sandra, mentor

"I am excited to bring my aspirations to the table [and] receive guidance as I formulate the goals to pursue them. I see mentorship as personal [and] educational support, self-discovery, paving a direction, learning, and friendship – I am thrilled to be taken under a senior's wing, both for my own growth and for others I can pass on the experience to! This program has introduced me to such kind, gentle, and adventurous souls. Hearing other perspectives on life strengthened the love for my own. This program taught me to love the little things; when I wake up in the morning, my goal would be to love. If I am without a goal, I should choose to love, and that is the goal that everyone in the program practices. I am so thankful for my growth throughout this program, and I am so happy to be part of it." -Kaylin, mentee 

Inspirations and Infusing Hope

For the co-program directors, inspiration for this intergenerational effort is lifelong, and deeply embedded in both personal and professional experiences.

When asked about her motivations, Shapiro shares, "During volunteer work throughout my life and then having the privilege of being in medicine, I increasingly witnessed the potential in bringing people together to promote well-being. People have so much to offer the world and we need to create opportunities for generativity. It is amazing how we feel when we give, we share, and we are generative. Loneliness is getting in the way of our health and wellbeing. It is something that, as a community, we can collaboratively address. Can we initiate programs that allow us to be kinder citizens and other-focused while getting an immense amount back in return? There are clear benefits to talking, sharing stories, and being fully present with someone else."

Banh's personal inspiration for pursuing intergenerational work stems from having grown up in the same home as her grandparents from birth to her college years, and experiencing the love and respect that was shared between her family daily. "Through gestures and broken sentences of mixed languages, we shared countless moments of love and this beautiful connection has stayed with me over the years," Banh says. "It has inspired me since childhood to keep finding ways to connect those of different ages and backgrounds to cultivate compassion and companionship, which I currently strive to do through a non-profit organization I co-lead, Eldies. On a personal level, building and maintaining close relationships with friends and mentors in every decade of life -- from under 10 to over 100 -- and learning from the wisdom shared from each individual has made my life so enriching and full of love and gratitude. It reminds me of why intergenerational work is so important to me and worthwhile!"

Despite the challenges of creating a community-based program during the global pandemic, combined with the challenges of research, the team remains passionate and motivated in their vision to spread love and kindness in their communities. When looking back at the start of their collaboration, Shapiro reflects, "After one discussion, we realized this was a perfect pairing of possibly too much idealism and optimism. Heidi has worked diligently on this project while managing her medical school courses, really pouring her heart and soul into it. I am in awe of her dedication, selflessness, and brilliance. It is an honor working with her."

Banh adds, "From our very first conversation sharing our passions, and throughout the journey since, Dr. Shapiro has nurtured and believed wholeheartedly in this dream with me."

Reflecting on the significance of this study, Shapiro highlights that the program was intentionally launched during the pandemic to aim to build resilience and infuse hope during a challenging time.

"It has been a magical experience highlighting the beauty of humanity," Shapiro says. "With the pandemic, we have realized the ease that virtual connection brings and how it has opened doors and created opportunities to talk, share, and have experiences that may not have otherwise been possible. We hope to continue our work promoting connection and compassion, even though it feels nothing like work and is more of a gift for both of us."

______________________________________________________________________________________________
The intergenerational program discussed in this article is currently unfunded.
If you have interest in learning more or sharing feedback, please reach out to Desiree Shapiro at dlshapiro@health.ucsd.edu or Heidi Banh at hmbanh@health.ucsd.edu.

*Given a workforce shortage, the UC San Diego Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Inclusive Excellence Program aims to grow an inclusive workforce of child and adolescent psychiatrists and is generously made possible by UnitedHealth Group. 

References

1.     Nguyen, T. T., Lee, E. E., Daly, R. E., Wu, T. C., Tang, Y., Tu, X., Van Patten, R., Jeste, D. V., & Palmer, B. W. (2020). Predictors of Loneliness by Age Decade: Study of Psychological and Environmental Factors in 2,843 Community-Dwelling Americans Aged 20-69 Years. The Journal of clinical psychiatry81(6), 20m13378. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.20m13378

2.     Carstensen, L., Freedman, M., & Larson, C. (June 2016). Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future. Stanford Center on Longevity. Retrieved from  https://longevity.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Monograph_web_07_11_2016.pdf