France Works to Link the Generations

During my exploration of French elder care programs, I was introduced to a wonderfully creative intergenerational program titled “Grandi, C’est Vieiller; Vieiller, C’est Grandi” Translated, it means: “To grow is to become old; to become old is to grow.” Supported by the Foundation Nationale de Gerontologie (FNG), 11 different youth-elder projects were initiated throughout France. The results and sociological analysis were presented at a symposium sponsored by UNESCO, and turned into a book titled “Parlons Ans – Let us Speak of the Years.” Here are some of its key points:

Realizing today’s youth may spend a third of their lives as seniors, and anticipating the doubling of France’s elderly population, FNG hoped to cross intergenerational boundaries and sought answers to many questions. Will our advanced years be fallow or a time to expand? How can the elderly retain their productivity and share their wisdom in society? How do youth see the elderly and think of their own aging? How do the elderly see youth? What ideas do both generations have to improve rapport between generations?

The project leaders envision a future which builds “solidarity between generations,” and they hope their work will lead to intergenerational collaboration in all sectors of life: education, family living, daily life in the community, municipal government, care programs for the elderly, social services and social welfare.

Genevieve Arfeuz-Vaucher, lead researcher at FNG and a professor at the University of Paris, reported that in communities throughout France, she organized students into groups with varying interests. The first group wished to meet seniors in their communities. Another organized meals and caregivers to help elderly both at home and in institutions. Other sought to understand aging concerns in institutions and at home and to educate school-age students how to age well. The last group compared images of aging in the media with the reality of aging and reported the results to their communities.

Another interesting study involved 800 youth committees who participated in local governments to improve their communities. The young people enjoyed proposing solutions to municipal problems such as speeding cars, traffic, school problems, drug difficulties, finding work, poverty, and racism. Both generations enjoyed this collaboration and the results of their work included community conferences on alcohol and drugs for youth, a toy drive for poor children, and the introduction of educational programs into a senior apartment building.

Finally, an intriguing study assessed children’s images of aging. A group of 16 children aged 9–16 visited an assisted-living facility and painted portraits of the elderly residents. The children’s thoughts and feelings were observed and analyzed in a psychological study which includes graphs explaining why children chose or refused to paint certain elderly residents. The preferred seniors exhibited a more enviable or “ideal” image of aging; they were happier, smiled more, and had few physical difficulties. Those turned down were physically incapacitated, very wrinkled and missing teeth, wore glasses, didn’t smile, and exhibited sad, mean or unpleasant moods. However, most interestingly, the students demonstrated empathy for the seniors: they hesitated to draw seniors as they really appeared, for fear of hurting their feelings.

I applaud the French for seeking to overcome generational boundaries, redefining aging, and educating youth about their future. In the words of FNG’s Jean-Michel Rossignol:

“Aging and old age are natural life processes. To grow and to age are complementary and not oppositional.”