The young and the elderly enjoy looking after each other. And they’re good at it.

The Baby Boom generation — born after World War II — has been like a pig working its way through a boa constrictor. When we were young, new schools sprang up to accommodate us. After we passed through, many of those schools had to be shuttered.

That happened right here in Guilderland. It took decades before the town grew enough to re-open Guilderland Elementary, which had been leased to a Hebrew school. Fort Hunter School was sold and decades later Pine Bush Elementary was built to serve the same region.

Now we Baby Boomers are old.  A recent study from Harvard has taken a long look at the numbers and sums it up like this: “Over the next twenty years, the population aged 65 and over is expected to grow from 48 million to 79 million. Meanwhile, the number of households headed by someone in that age group will increase by 66 percent to almost 50 million — with the result that by 2035, an astounding one out of three American households will be headed by someone aged 65 or older.”

So what’s happening now in Guilderland? Housing is springing up for the elderly. And typical of modern America that created suburban sprawl as each nuclear family wanted its own home, the senior housing in town for the most part is just that — segregated. Elderly couples or individual seniors are being offered places to live with similarly old people.

While in Asia and Europe, it is common for members of different generations to live together, the American family has evolved into a nuclear one.

We have become a nation of lonely people. A Loneliness Index developed by Cigna earlier this year surveyed 20,000 Americans to examine the behaviors driving loneliness in our country. Why should an insurance company care about loneliness?

The study says that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. The study found, it’s not just old people who feel lonely; young people do too. In fact, students had higher loneliness scores than retirees. When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, more than half of the respondents (54 percent) surveyed said they feel that way always or sometimes.

The solution seems fairly simple: People who are less lonely are those who have in-person interactions, the study says.

Generations United and the Eisner Foundation came out with a report this year, “All In Together: Creating Places Where Young and Old Thrive,” extolling the benefits of intergenerational sharing. The two not-for-profit groups commissioned a Harris Poll that found plenty of support for programs that bring diverse age groups together to fend off loneliness. Ninety-two percent of Americans believe intergenerational activities can help reduce loneliness across all ages, the poll found.

Nearly all Americans (94 percent) agree that older people have skills or talents that can help address a child’s/youth’s needs and 89 percent believe the same about children and youth addressing the needs of elders.

More than four in five Americans also say if they (85 percent) or a loved one (86 percent) needed care services, they would prefer a care setting with opportunities for intergenerational contact rather than one with a single age group.

Americans were also clear that age segregation is harmful, finding that almost three-quarters (74 percent) agree that “programs and facilities that separately serve different age groups prevent children/youth and older adults from benefiting from each other’s skills and talents.”

But, sadly, the report also says sites shared by young and old are a rarity when they should be the norm.

Over the years, we’ve covered individual efforts that have bridged the generational divide: Children at Westmere Elementary School were paired with elderly residents of Beverwyck; Guilderland High School students wrote the biographies of elderly Atria residents; a committee searching for ways to fill empty Guilderland classrooms had as one proposal senior daycare.

While we’ve lauded these efforts, they are short-lived at best. This week, though, we have a front-page story about a proposal that could serve as a model not just for our community but across New York State. Our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, has written about a soon-to-be proposed complex — for Mercy Care Lane, near the public library and the YMCA — that would house residents age 55 and older, young people with disabilities, and families who have adopted foster children.

The project is jointly backed by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services and a not-for-profit organization, Treehouse, that has run a similar, successful program in Massachusetts. The results there have been stunning.

A table of figures comparing the Treehouse foster children with national figures on foster children over the period 2006 to 2007 show a near-doubled rate of high-school graduation, from 58 percent nationally to 95 percent at Treehouse; a rate of attending college or vocational school of less than 10 percent nationally compared to 100 percent at Treehouse; teens parenting at 48 percent nationally and 2 percent at Treehouse; failed placements, with children returning to the the Department of Children and Families at 16 percent nationally compared to 0 at Treehouse; and incidence of arrests at 46 percent nationally compared to 0 at Treehouse.

There are no figures on how the elderly residents have benefitted but we imagine they feel good about helping others and are glad to have a lifetime of skills and compassion put to use. We also imagine that the children and young adults as well as their elders are a lot less lonely in a community like that.

As Yael Petretti, volunteer coordinator for Treehouse, put it, “These folks have almost a new lease on life. The kids really need them, and they need the kids, too.” She described the community as “kind of like the extended family of old. We’ve kind of lost that, and we’re poorer for it.”

Creating ghettos for the elderly doesn’t serve the community as a whole. And what will happen to all those complexes for the over-55 set once the Baby Boomers have passed through? Building communities with a vibrant mix of ages is a better idea.

While we find it unlikely our segregated living style will change rapidly, we urge town and school leaders to seriously consider programs that might be set up or expanded to include interactions between generations.

There are economic benefits from shared costs and expenses when sites combine child care and elder care. “Intergenerational Shared Sites: Saving Dollars While Making Sense” found that these programs save money by sharing staff and space. Personnel costs were significantly less in intergenerational shared sites and the study also found that the sites often experienced cost savings in rent.

But the benefits go far beyond economics.

“All In Together” quantifies some of the advantages for kids of setting up intergenerational programs. Elementary school age children who had attended an intergenerational care program one to three years earlier demonstrated greater levels of empathy, social acceptance, and ability to self-regulate than peers who had not attended an intergenerational program. Preschool children had higher personal and social developmental scores, by 11 months. Children who participated in activities led by adult day services participants also improved motor and cognitive skills.

At the other end of the age spectrum, older participants experienced better physical and mental health, less isolation and loneliness, and participated in more activities.

Bridging this divide would not just improve quality of life for young and old alike but, as the Cigna report shows, would save lives as well.

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