What Makes College-Based Intergenerational Programs Successful?

What Makes College-Based Intergenerational Programs Successful?

“Generation Z is desperate to change the world we’ve inherited,” an undergraduate said. “When will older leaders get out of the way?” That question prompted N.J. Pierce — an experienced management consultant and Fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative — to...

Our Next Chapter Depends on You

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It’s been quite a year at CoGenerate (formerly known as Encore.org)! We changed our name and reframed our mission. As CoGenerate, we’re focusing on what the vast and growing older population can do in collaboration with younger people to solve today’s most pressing...

We Mixed 5 Generations at 5 Tables for Conversation and Dinner. Here’s What We Learned.

By | Dec 6, 2022

String lights hang in a backyard where groups of people sit at several tables.

In October, we joined forces with Generations Over Dinner, a challenge to gather all ages at the dinner table for meaningful multigenerational experiences and conversations and an invitation to anyone interested in the mutual benefits of intergenerational connection.

In November, CoGenerate staff gathered in Los Angeles for our first in-person meeting since early 2020 and hosted our own Generations Over Dinner. It wasn’t hard to set up.

First, we invited folks from the CoGenerate community who live in LA, with the goal of getting five generations at each of five tables. 

An age diverse group of women chat while getting drinks at an outdoor bar.

Next, we picked a location. I live in LA with my husband, Peter, and our two boys, so we offered up our backyard. With support from CoGenerate, we rented tables, chairs and heat lamps (it does get cold in LA at night). We found a great taco vendor for food and stocked up on drinks. 

And then we worked on our program. We assigned seats to ensure generational diversity at each table. We assigned a person at each table to guide people through suggested questions. And we came up with simple questions. Our dinner script pulled from a variety of scripts on the Generations Over Dinner website, and we added a question or two that we thought might encourage more personal conversations. 

A middle-aged woman and older man lean in while sitting at a table and smile.

When the big night came, about 40 people showed up, ranging in age from 16 to 92. The evening went off without a hitch. I heard lots of laughter and watched as people leaned into what looked like intense conversations.

Afterwards, nearly all attendees said they enjoyed themselves, were grateful for the opportunity to connect deeply across generations, and wanted to do it again. Here are a few of their comments:

“I don’t think that I’ve shared things so personal and vulnerable with people I knew less ever before.” Mike Rizzo, 67 

“Conversation at my table was open and sincere. We were all good listeners and truly trying to understand.” Geraldine Hurley, 84

“It was very casual and authentic. It didn’t feel like anything was off limits to talk about and it felt really comfortable.” Thanasi Dilos, 19

“What a beautiful space for connection and conversation.” Marina Kim, 39

An older man cracks up at what someone at the table is saying.

Here are a few things we learned:

People tend to match the level of vulnerability that precedes them. CoGenerate staffers at different tables all told me that once one person opened up and shared on a deeply personal level, everyone else followed suit.

When it comes to scripting, less is more. Most tables only made it through the first two questions. It turned out that nobody followed the guidance to not comment or respond to another person’s share, instead allowing conversation to meander organically after each person responded to a question. 

There’s a risk in going this route, as we heard from a few folks. A few elders defaulted to advice-giving, which we had hoped wouldn’t happen.

Two young women and one young man from Koreatown Storytelling Program hold plates and smile.

Engage all ages in developing your questions, particularly young people. In hindsight, I wish I’d run the dinner script questions by the younger folks in attendance. Instead, during the rush of preparing for the retreat and the dinner event, I created the questions with another woman I work with who is also in her forties, and we only sought feedback internally from colleagues who are older than we are. 

We heard afterwards that some young people were unprepared for and a bit uncomfortable with the personal nature and intensity of the conversations at their tables. I wonder how the questions might have been different if I’d co-created them with the younger people who attended. 

Take steps to make sure all ages are comfortable. We should have made sure that each young person who attended was seated at a table with an older person they knew, providing an important buffer of support before diving into complicated topics and deep sharing among a group of adults they’d never met before.

***

I hope you’ll host a Generations Over Dinner event of your own this holiday season by using or adapting their special holiday dinner scripts, which you can get by signing up on their website.  

I loved having such a diverse and joyful group together in our backyard, sharing food and conversation, and getting to meet some people I’d only known previously via Zoom or the phone. 

A highlight for me was watching everyone at my table soak up the stories of my 92-year-old friend Conny, who was thrilled to be there. 

The next day Thanisi, 19, texted me. “Meeting Conny was the highlight of my month!” 

Conny’s response? “Give him my number and tell him to call me!” 

Conny Caruso, 92, and Greg Burnett, 60, smile and hold their hands out.

All photographs by Victoria Wall Harris