How Two Lonely Generations Are Helping Each Other Heal

Young adults and the elderly were especially isolated in the pandemic. There are efforts underway to help connect them.


The pandemic is not just making many of us sick, it is making virtually all of us lonelier, according to a Harvard report based on a national survey of 950 Americans issued in February.


The loneliest people, as a group, are young adults. About half of 18- to 25-year-olds reported that not a single person in the past few weeks had “taken more than a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that seemed genuinely caring. The second loneliest demographic appears to be the elderly, said the report’s lead researcher, Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Dr. Weissbourd believes that the young and the old would feel a lot less isolated if they had more contact with one another. But the pandemic has largely kept these generations apart, weakening a bond that researchers say is critical for the well-being of both.


“The elderly have so much to share with young people — wisdom about love, work, friendship, mortality and many other things,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “And young people have so much to share with the elderly about a rapidly changing world — not just technology, but new and important ways of thinking about race and racism, justice, sexuality and gender and other critical issues.”


One thing that elders are expert in is how to thrive during hard times, according to Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University. Last April he initiated the Cornell Crisis Advice Project in which seniors — many of whom had lived through wars, epidemics and the Great Depression — offered wisdom to the young on how to deal with the current pandemic.


The elders emphasized that today’s troubles are temporary and will pass, Dr. Pillemer said. To better cope with current restrictions, they frequently recommended relishing the small things in life — a cup of coffee in the morning, a brightly colored bird on the lawn. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events, the elders reported, lifts them up daily,” he said.


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