Bloopers and False Starts: Paying Attention to the Challenges of Intergenerational Work

Posted: December 15, 2012

Written materials and videotape accounts of intergenerational programs tend to emphasize the positive and downplay the difficulties. This makes it difficult for people who are new to the field to gain a realistic sense of the challenges of intergenerational work.

In 2001, Vicki Rosebrook and I surveyed intergenerational practitioners to collect their stories of things that have gone “wrong” with their intergenerational program plans. We presented our findings at a 2001 Generations United conference workshop, entitled, “Bloopers and False Starts.” Here are some of the responses we received from our survey.

Theme #1: Clarify expectations for participants and staff beforehand:

  1. “When combining a variety of ages, often times the obvious is overlooked – how do we address one another? Our first year of intergenerational interactions, children called the residents by their first name (because that is what everyone else called them). The residents were VERY upset and almost chose not to continue the interactions, because this was perceived as disrespectful.”
  2. “The children were dancing during religious music, which has offended some of the senior residents.”

Theme #2: Screening is important – Not every project is for every individual:

  1. “The preschoolers were walking around from room to room greeting the Grandma’s and Grandpa’s when one of the senior residents started to remove her clothing, in front of the children. The teacher was alone with the preschoolers and only one staff member from [the long term care facility]. Later the teacher found out that the resident thought she was in the restroom.”
  2. “We have a case of a senior (90+) who lives in a long term care facility (assisted living) who seems to be focused primarily on flirting with the staff -- dancing, talking, etc. Problem: He’s taking too much attention. Our program is geared to teaching social skills and communication skills for children with special needs. He wasn’t really "with" the program… But the kids loved him… He’s very outgoing and funny…(He wears a suit and bow tie, hat, and a hanky out of his pocket.) He was once in show business (maybe a comedian) … But other seniors (mostly women) didn’t like him. He is there for the instructions at the beginning of each day.  But he just smiles and is charming. He’s oblivious to the program. He enjoys himself and the kids adore him (he gives them rides on his walker which has a seat on it). The problem is that he sort of sucks attention from everyone … We have had to almost assign an assistant to him to give him the attention he craves. Some of the other seniors complain and seem to resent him…”
  3. “One story that comes to mind would be my "Sara story" ... Sarah was one of our three-year-olds who was participating in an intergenerational activity with our nursing care residents. While engaged with a hands on craft one of the seniors sitting next to Sara just blurted out " You’re a bad little girl, you are so ugly" and with this Sara began to cry........I don’t necessarily need to go into the rest, but of course I do emphasize with my training the importance of appropriate training content for each component. In this situation we needed to look at a few things.
    • Are participants appropriately advised as to what they may experience or witness while attending an IG activity? 
    • What about the aging professional? -- Are we being sensitive and cautious when we are choosing our seniors to participate in an IG activity? What may this individual’s mood be this morning? Has there been any recent meds changed etc? Do all the seniors who partake in such activities need to be high functioning? And what is high functioning? What is it we would like to accomplish in an IG exchange/activity?
    • Are we appropriately placing our children with the right senior? Is our child-care professional aware of the goals, signs to be looking for, etc.?”
  4. “When interviewing individuals to work in intergenerational settings we originally asked questions that dealt mostly with young children. The questions we asked about senior adults were very superficial, e.g., ‘Do you like senior adults?’ ‘Do you like being around older people?’ Of course the candidates responded positively but when hired we found this to be quite the opposite. They were indeed not comfortable and therefore intergenerational interactions decreased significantly.

Theme #3: Pay attention to logistics:

  1. “Transportation for children can be difficult.  In South Carolina there are laws that state children have to ride in certain types of automobiles. There are a couple of groups of kids that I would like to work with (in intergenerational programs), but I don't have the transportation for them.  Trying to get their parents to commit to driving them on a regular basis just isn't feasible.  I can line some transportation up, but extra money is needed and sometimes it is difficult just to find the transportation through the school system.  I try to use children that are close the parks that I am working in and the children can just walk over to the park with counselors or other supervision.”
  2. “One of my programs (involves) working in the garden with older adults and children.  Well, if the weather is bad, you don't have a program. Last year, I wanted to highlight one of the programs on Live at 5, a nightly new show. We would schedule, it would rain and we couldn't do it. This happened three different times that we scheduled it!  Finally, I just gave up and we didn't show our program on the air. We have learned to take different type of gardening activities inside on bad weather days. You can create labels for your garden, we have painted rocks, let your volunteers share stories with the children ... there are any number of things you can do to keep your groups coming together.”

Theme #4: Do solid planning, but be ready for the unpredictable:

  1. “I had organized an intergenerational walking tour for participants of a community center located in a tough urban neighborhood.  This activity was designed to enable the participating youth and older adults to show each other those neighborhood sites for which they have good feelings or wish to learn more. One of the sites on the tour was a local candy shop.  While in the shop, one of the young participants, a particularly hardened 13-year old, started cursing wildly at the store owner for not being nice to her in the past.”
  2. “Remember not to overreact to situations in front of the children and senior adults. While visiting the Alzheimer’s unit with a couple of infants, a resident sitting on the couch decided to goose my behind. I promptly jumped and let out a loud scream, which in turn scared the infants and residents. It was not a pretty scene because the babies just would not stop crying and we had to leave. The next time it happened, I learned my lesson and remained calm.”
  3. I offer a program called Project LOVE (Let Older Volunteers Educate).  We work with school age children in schools one day a week in various schools. It takes dependable volunteers to keep this program going. Well, one day I did not have enough volunteers to hold the program. They all decided to take a trip the day they were suppose to participate in this program. The only thing we could do was call the program for that specific day. That is not so bad, but if you don't have volunteers, you don't have a program. Needless to say, I pounded the pavement looking for more volunteers. Now when a few are out, we have others that will take up the slack. That is just something that happens when you work with volunteers.

Drawing from survey results, we pulled together the following outline of the types of problems and difficulties that intergenerational program practitioners encounter:

  1. Forming Partnerships/Getting the "right" team of collaborating organizations together: selection of inappropriate partners, lack of clarity about respective roles and responsibilities, and differing perceptions of words like "exchange," "interaction," "collaboration," and "sharing."
  2. Recruiting Participants: ineffective recruitment campaigns (i.e., not generating participants), unanticipated challenges of recruitment (e.g., "tough crowd" at a senior center), and lack of interest or responsiveness.
  3. Orientation and Training for Participants: insensitivity to the needs and expectations of participants (on the part of staff, volunteers, and other participants), divergent expectations about participants’ role(s), and lack of interest or unanticipated reaction to planned activities.
  4. Funding: difficulties obtaining, receiving, and/or dispersing funding.
  5. Activity selection: activities are not developmentally appropriate -- i.e., did not take into account competencies (e.g., readiness to create and explore) or limitations (e.g., in terms of mobility and cognitive functioning).
  6. Selection of setting: inappropriate choice, unanticipated occurrences, poor acoustics, inclement weather, inappropriate furnishings, etc.
  7. Communication dynamics: conflict (or misunderstandings) involving participants, staff, and/or administrators; disconcerting exchanges between children and senior adults; and violations of cultural norms (e.g., in regard to greetings, touch, humor, etc.).
  8. Floundering levels of participation: e.g., mysterious no-shows.
  9. Ill-conceived implementation of activities: e.g., abrupt beginnings and endings or lack of transitions.
  10. Lack of clarity about program objectives: e.g., uncertainty about the needs that are being addressed, the quality of life enhancements that are being sought, etc.
  11. Evaluation: e.g., inappropriate selection/use of evaluation tools, misunderstandings associated with some aspect of the research enterprise, etc.
  12. Program publicity: missed opportunities for providing due recognition for volunteers and professional partners, inaccurate publicity of program, missed opportunities for publicity, etc.
  13. Improper use of terms or terminology: e.g. "old folks," "rug rats," "brats," "curtain climbers," "geezers," etc.
  14. Logistics: e.g., transportation difficulties, computer glitches, etc.

Although most write-ups of IG work tend to focus on what worked well, the truth of the matter is that there is often a side story about things did not go as planned, embarrassing things that happened in the field, and a resilient program team that needed to make mid-program adjustments. By sharing such “side stories” we add to each others knowledge and skills with regard to developing and implementing successful programs.

For those of you who are willing to share your own intergenerational programming “bloopers” (things that go wrong) and “false start” stories, I would be glad to post them on the Penn State Intergenerational Program website. Just send me a short blurb of your experience(s), with some mention of lessons learned. My e-mail address is: