All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

A couple of years ago, when our youngest child was in kindergarten, I visited the classroom. It was chaos.  Little people running around.  Lots of noise.  Even a little bit of stinkiness. It was more commotion than I was used to in a confined setting. The teacher did an amazing job of corralling the energetic kids and directing them towards productive activities. But she was not alone. She was often helped by Jim.

Initially, I thought Jim was a grandparent who helped out from time to time. Later, I thought he was a co-teacher given his great level of involvement. He focused on reading skills, including with our son, Andrew. Andrew benefited from the attention but he also liked Jim’s company. Andrew spoke fondly of how nice it was to have someone like ‘Papa’ or ‘Grandpop’ around even though his grandfathers lived across country.

Experience Corps

It turns out that Jim wasn’t related to any of the kids in the class. He was a volunteer as a part of Experience Corps, an organization that Marc Freedman of Encore.org helped launch and that is now part of the AARP Foundation. In existence since the 1990s, Experience Corps has nearly 2,000 highly-trained volunteers working in 21 cities and serves over 30,000 students every year in high-need elementary schools. Baltimore has a particularly robust branch of Experience Corps with over 300 volunteers serving nearly 6,000 kids. Volunteers, like Jim, are trained and commit at least 15 hours a week in the classroom. This is an example of the intergenerational power of “all hands on deck.”

And It’s Proven to Be Good for Your Health

As one might expect, the impact is positive for the kids. The program has shown to improve reading and math test scores, increase attendance and positively impact the classroom climate.

The surprise is the impact on the volunteers. Evidence found by Johns Hopkins researchers and others indicate that older adults that volunteer for a significant number of hours each week reap important physical health, brain health and community outcomes as a result of the participation. In one study, purposeful activity embedded within a social health program halted and, in men, reversed declines in brain volume in regions vulnerable to dementia. In another study, participation in an intergenerational civic engagement program was shown to positively alter self-perceptions of generativity in older adulthood. In other words, it can help with purpose.

“All Hands” Can Happen Organically, Too

At The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, MD the first Smart Living 360 community, we bring together people of all ages by design.  In the process, the power of serendipity can also create intergenerational connections. For example, Ms. Graff, a retired school teacher, was introduced to a family with two teenage girls that are being home schooled.  Part of their curriculum is French, one of Ms. Graff’s areas of expertise. Over the last month, she has tutored each of the girls and has seen encouraging development.

“It’s a true ‘win-win’,” says Ms. Graff, who resides in The Stories along with her husband. The girls benefit from one-on-one attention and Ms. Graff benefits from an opportunity to practice her French. Ms. Graff finds it particularly gratifying to work with motivated students and see them build confidence in their abilities and believe in their potential. This is beginning to happen with the girls. And it is all made easier by living in the same community with common spaces to meet and where transportation – walking and an elevator – is simple.

Renee, a 9th grader, attributes the tutoring relationship to something broader. She believes it’s the culture of the community. “People here want to help each other,” says Renee. Before moving into The Stories, her family lived in a single family home and did not know their neighbors as well. She’s been touched by this new environment where she has been helped and also helped others.  This is “all hands on deck” in action.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

The benefits of face-to-face connection are real and the value of intergenerational relationships is particularly important.  In today’s highly mobile, technology-enabled society, we may have to seek out intergenerational relationships much more so than in the past. One option may be to be live in communities where such relationships are common and encouraged. Regardless, with increasing lifespans – experts say the first person to live to 150 is alive today – many may find a reason to dive back into the unique atmosphere of kindergarten and, in the end, we will all be better off. “All hands on deck” is more than a nautical term. It’s a way to imagine intergenerational flourishing.

On Personal Connection

Technology is Amazing But It’s Not the Same as Personal, Face-to-Face Connection

Technology is transforming our lives. In a moment’s notice, we can summon a ride, skype a friend continents away or upload our health data to a physician for immediate feedback. Now, we even have tens of millions of people playing Pokémon Go across the globe!

However, for all its amazing benefits, it does not provide in person, face-to-face connection. And it turns out that it matters. It matters a lot.

Personal Connection is At Least as Important as Your Diet

In The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, Susan Pinker outlines the significant impact of face-to-face personal connection, such a connection that Facebook or Skype can’t provide. She notes in her book that “the connection between social involvement and robust physical and mental health is no fluke, and that the benefits of regular social contact are at least as powerful as regular exercise and a healthy diet.” Further, there are literally physiological changes that personal connection creates. In response to physical ailments, the right kind of social contact instructs the body to secrete more endogenous opiates, which act as local painkillers, and fewer hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and corticosterioids – the body’s often destructive answer to immediate stressors – which can affect our physical resilience.

Social connection can make a big difference for those warding off disease, such as cancer. Testing for the impact of social connection versus social isolation, researchers have found that female rats that live in groups are 84 times less likely as their socially isolated kin to develop breast cancer tumors. Among humans, socially isolated women are 66% percent more likely to die of breast cancer than women who had at least ten friends they could count.

The Surprising Impact of Your Social Network

One’s social network also has a surprisingly profound indirect impact. In fact, the habits of your social network can be contagious. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers have found that health problems such as obesity and alcoholism seem to travel from person to person within identifiable cliques. In other words, becoming obese can be contagious within real social networks, much the way a bad cold gets passed along at a dinner party.

There’s an important flip side, of course. The right socializing with the right friends can help you ward off loneliness and chronic illness. My brother-in-law, Dr. Henry Cloud, recently released his now New York Times best-selling book, The Power of the Other, which highlights many of the attributes of positive social connection that help lead to peak performance and high-levels of well-being.

At the Same Time, Isolation is Becoming More Prevalent

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, through his seminal work Bowling Alone in 2000, has been a vocal thought leader to highlight the emerging issue of social isolation. Today, 32 million Americans live alone, a figure that has risen every decade since the early 20th century. There are an additional 30 million people who may not live alone but characterize themselves as socially isolated and they are not happy about it.

Lessons from Blue Zones

The good news is that there are successful lessons to be learned elsewhere in the world. One such example is Sardinia’s Nuoro province which is considered a Blue Zone, a demographic and geographic area where people live measurably longer lines. Here, people benefit from rich multigenerational interactions and are part of a cultural expectation to pursue “reciprocal altruism”. Indeed, Harvard researchers have shown that people can live longer if they choose to live with a group of like-minded people creating, in effect, a village.

Opportunity to Create Communities, Not Buildings

All of this adds up to an enormous opportunity to create social capital within our built environments. On the surface, many apartment buildings and condominiums can be seen strictly as sticks and bricks. However, conceived and positioned differently, these environments can be thriving communities where positive social connection is fostered and nurtured.

Connection – personal, face-to-face connection – is one of the three core principles of Smart Living 360. We have designed common spaces to facilitate interaction, we host events to bring people together and our Lifestyle Ambassador makes special efforts to connect like-minded people. At our recently opened community, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, we are seeing the impact of this connection. One of our older residents, who has no immediate family in the area, has forged a friendship with a pre-teen whose family has recently relocated from California. Another resident hosts a monthly craft night where people in and outside of The Stories are invited to participate in making crafts through knitting, etc. Building of social capital is in progress.

Although technology will undoubtedly create unbelievable advances, we must never forget the irreplaceable importance of in-person face-to-face connections and recognize the opportunity to cultivate social capital through our physical environments.