How can you get 60 years younger in just one hour?

Although we often experience that people who are distant in terms of age, geographic location or social status hardly understand one another and approach the matters of the world and one another along different values and attitudes, in fact, generational and other gaps are not as scary as they may seem. If we try to foster understanding not only through theoretical lectures and campaigns, but through real-life, positive encounters, it’s easy to experience outlandish strangers become friendly acquaintances. Magosfa Foundation has been organising meetings for elementary students and retirement home residents for several years, through which they have a chance to get to know each other, as well as learn about environment-friendly solutions. Many individuals, teachers and social care workers have had the chance to learn about the methods of this initiative that was created based on a Dutch model.

Many retirement homes welcome kids’ groups that perform, play music or dance for the elderly, who are there to just passively watch them and marvel at the skills of the youth. But children and elderly people that don’t know each other rarely have the chance to have a real connection, to have real conversations. It is no wonder then that both groups develop prejudices against the other: “The elderly are slow, grumpy and only care about the past, and know nothing about what matters in this day and age.” “Children are irresponsible, superficial, they don’t know or respect the past, and they are slaves to the virtual commodities of this age.” But these stereotypes can change easily if we get to know an elderly person that is cheerful, or a child that is attentive; if we understand that the past has many important values that are worth keeping, or that there are many important innovations today that are worth integrating. Meetings can be even more effective if they aren’t organised with the sole purpose of the two groups getting to know and like each other, as this can easily end up having the opposite effect.

At the meetings organised by Magosfa, students and pensioners come together with the purpose of learning about new things and discussing topics related to lifestyle options and sustainability. The elderly aren’t limited to just silently watching the children’s performances, and neither are the children forced to quietly take in the life stories and experiences of the elderly. The participants are divided into mixed groups of 4-6, with both elderly and young members. Along the topic of the activities, all participants have the chance to share their knowledge and experiences and also give feedback to the others. In order for all participants to feel comfortable in this situation, the organisers make sure that in every small group there are at least two children and two elderly people that know each other well. The conversation usually catches on easily along any shared topic. Once, an old lady told the others that as a small girl, she and her friends skated on the frozen backwaters of the Rába on the way home from school, and it ruined her shoes. She had the mischievous look of a child on her face while telling the story, and the children could feel that this old lady was not that much different from them. “It is great to see pale, sombre people lighten up and almost get younger” – Barbara Sólyom, a staff member of the foundation shared her experience. 

But it’s not only that the presence of the children has a positive effect on the elderly, it works the other way around as well. The children often show remarkable empathy towards the elderly during the group conversations. In one group, where one of the ladies was hard of hearing, one of the girls volunteered to be her “interpreter” – she leaned to her ears and loudly repeated to her everything that was said at the table. Needless to say, the success of the meetings greatly depends on the teachers of the children and the caretakers of the elderly, who prepare them for these meetings together with the staff of the foundation. At the same time, the participants, as they lighten up during the conversations, often turn to one another with such simple honesty and openness that would be impossible to achieve in a single theoretical preparatory session.

Besides getting to know one another, the information they exchange is also very important. The elderly often share such practices with the children that they would otherwise be unlikely to get authentic information about. On one occasion – when the topic was washing – a 90-year-old lady gave a detailed account of how her grandmother used to wash clothes. This way, the children, born in the 21st century, had the chance to hear a first-hand account of a 19th century practice.  

Before you think that topics such as washing may not be that interesting for elderly men, we have to mention an occasion when an elderly man who used to be a tailor told the entire group how washing should be done properly. During the meetings, everyone in the smaller groups has the chance to share their experiences and insights, and if somebody feels like it, they can speak to the whole group as well. This way everyone has a chance to take part in the communication, but only those speak more publicly, to the whole bigger group, that really feel a desire to do so.

The participants obtain some of the knowledge from one another, but the facilitators always prepare with information and practical skills that are new to both generations. These, and the topics of the sessions are usually dictated by what the groups are interested in. For example, one of the retirement homes has recently told the foundation that the residents started to develop an interest in climate change due to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, so they requested a session around this topic.

Beside talking and learning new things, creating something together is also of great importance at the meetings. At a session during the carnival season, each smaller group created a costume, and a member of each group presented it to the others at the end. The experience of creating something together, and of success, are important both for the sake of strengthening bonds among group members, and deepening the knowledge obtained in a practical way.

In the experience of the foundation, the process does not stop when the sessions end. Some elderly ladies have made little presents for girls they got to know at previous sessions. Creating lasting bonds and long-term cooperation are also important goals. Thanks to our current project, many other schools, organisations and retirement homes have been able to apply this method. Some students’ groups always go back to the same homes so that they can continue learning and creating together and getting to know one another.
There are trainings for teachers and retirement home staff, and before the sessions there are open forums for NGO’s and anyone interested so that they can observe actual sessions after hearing about the theory behind them.  “It is important to pass on the knowledge to others, because we cannot go to every school and retirement home of the country ourselves” - Barbara Sólyom thinks.

The experiences of the past few months have proven that the method works not only with students between the ages of 10-14, who they had predominantly worked with previously. Other initiatives have organised successful sessions with younger and older students, and even children with mild intellectual disabilities as well. Because if we get the chance to talk to others, and to feel important in that situation - through sharing our experiences, a kind gesture  we make towards the members of the other group, or the experience of creating together -  then we can all open up to and initiate cooperation with people that at first glance may seem distant and unfamiliar.

Watch the video about the program: