My friend Elena, a very wise soul, not long ago told me of her dream for the future. She spoke of an intergenerational living community in New York City committed to the health and happiness of all its members. Not just within families but across all cultural, racial, socioeconomic, age, and gender lines, elders and youngsters would share their collective wisdom. A grandmother, recently retired, would work in the community food garden with a 10 –year-old looking for a homework break. Of course there are numerous obstacles to achieving this utopia, but the idealist in me saw the promise in Elena’s concept. Might this be the way to save our communities from the health and environmental challenges we face? If so, how could we make it happen?
Last month I had the great pleasure of participating in a unique educational gathering, “Healthy Environments Across Generations,” at the New York Academy of Medicine. This “un-conference,” as we termed it, was a 36-hour jolt of hope “focusing on the impacts that multiple, interacting environments can have on health (including the socioeconomic, chemical, food, built, natural, and psychosocial environments) as well as intergenerational and creative approaches to improve public and planetary health.” That mouthful is the only way to describe what we experienced. Rather than speeches we had conversations—and presenters were participants with the “audience” in an open format specifically chosen to inspire creative thinking. Best of all, I think, it was the first professional educational gathering I can recall that actively included participation across the lifespan. Millennials mixed with Boomers as participants ranged from 20’s to 80’s in age. The multidisciplinary nature of the meeting was a breath of fresh air as well. I spoke with school nurses, “Gray Panthers,” landscape architects, community activists, musicians, college students, and many more. Recognizing that the old ways of doing things were not working, we were there to find a way forward to better our environment and our health care system.
The concept of health and environment is not a new one, and one to which I’ve dedicated lots of well-spent time and effort. It was the intergenerational piece that was new for me—and it makes so much sense. Think about what we have lost in our communities—that sense of elder wisdom to nurture and guide our youngsters. Families are split across the country, even the world. We live in our little boxes and we work in our silos. There are a growing number of retirees (some voluntary and some not) who still have so much to share and to give. There are growing number of young families who could use the support… and the wisdom. What we need is to reconnect and utilize all of our resources, recognizing the value of intergenerational and interdisciplinary collaboration for the common good.