I was very fortunate to have lived the early parts of my life in middle America within about twenty minutes’ drive of my grandparents, and even when I later lived further away – sometimes on another continent – I benefitted from distance-shortening technologies such as email and online video (as well as a grandmother willing to embrace them as early as the 1990’s). My young children – now aged 3 and 4 now – will grow up a long flight (and, in some ways, an entire culture) removed from at least one of their grandmothers (one living in the US, and the other in Hong Kong). My challenge is to keep them all close – for the good of young and old alike.
Writing in GrandMagazine, Larry Fowler describes Why Grandparents Need to Tell Stories, highlighting the sense of identity, wisdom, and acceptance which grandparents can impart to their grandchildren, as well as the moderating effect such guidance can have as children grow older and encounter – or even seek to fill internal voids with – outside influences.
At the same time, the treasure to be had for grandparents from interactions with grandchildren is easily visible. Remaining active improves health and longevity. Social engagement (online and offline), reduces the risk of isolation and depression (and need for related pharma solutions). Impacting a younger generation solidifies a sense of legacy and softens the hard edges of mortality. Writing in his blog post Grandma Gamers?, George Schalter discusses the growing rate at which grandparents embrace video games as a means for connecting with young people in their lives, as well as sharing their experiences in problem solving (and embracing an ever changing world).
The challenge then is finding a bridge – not only across distance but across generations. At one end sits the yearning of youth, willing to learn and embrace entire new technologies in order to feed a seemingly insatiable hunger for experience, growth and conquest of the future. At the other end resides the experience of ages, in some ways shackled by time already spent and the knowledge that came with it, yet ever more attuned to the tricky balance of having more time to spend (in the near term) with the knowledge of having ever less time to spend it in (over the longer term).
While technology has shown itself to be a wonder at changing the world as we know it and – at least arguably – improving the way many live their lives, it is not clear that technology has - as of yet - fully delivered on that promise to older generations and, therefore, the younger generations who might interact with them. In A Social Network for Talkers, David Gelernter (professor of computer science at Yale) theorizes a new, audio-based social network better designed to bridge with older generations, suggesting that reliance on audio communication and navigation will minimize the need for interaction with fiddly buttons and virtual or even physical keyboards, more closely mirror the social interactions which older generations are comfortable with, and thereby expand the benefits of technology-enabled social connectivity across generations.
Recognizing - and respecting - the needs and realities of older generations is a crucial - and, to date, too often overlooked - step towards increasing use of technology solutions for social engagement. To be most effective, I believe a focus on the relationships in which such engagement will occur deserves at least equal attention. While there are undoubtedly people who benefit from - and, indeed, even long for - the ability to connect with others they don't already know, it seems the simplest solution - and perhaps the one whose need is felt most acutely (though not most often addressed) - is one which will foster connections with the family and friends - of all generations - we already have but don't have the ability to connect with more closely each day as much as we would like.
I am looking for that solution and heartened by the people - such as those mentioned above - leading the charge in tackling the social and technological challenges that will have to be overcome to find it. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to look for the treasures in their own lives to appreciate and preserve in the here and now, before their value becomes fleeting in hindsight - indeed, reduced to scant etchings in a shoe box full of photos.