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In with the old: the book project bringing generations together

By Ross Bennett  

What does loneliness mean to you? Many different people know exactly what they think it feels like to them, but there is no agreed definition of “loneliness” in research, it manifests itself in different ways. Mental health is something that is becoming more widely recognised and gradually understood, but loneliness seems to be a subtle area within this that needs more focus still.

The older generation experience crushing isolation and loneliness, with a saddening one-million people over the age of 65 who say they “often or always feel lonely”; and two in five that say “the television is their main form of company” (Age UK, 2014). Perhaps this isn’t surprising, if we consider that families don’t live so closely these days, with younger family members constantly complaining about being too busy living rapidly more demanding and hectic lifestyles.

More surprisingly though, the results of a recent survey indicated that 16–24 year olds experience loneliness more often and more intensely than any other age group. 40% of respondents aged 16–24 reported feeling lonely often or very often, while only 29% of people aged 65–74 and 27% of people aged over 75 said the same (BBC Radio 4’s collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, 2018). The study looked into the crossover that younger generations have between their online social profile, and friends they have in real life. With many having more friends online who ‘they’d never met’ than they spoke to or saw in person. But with people from pre-internet generations also agreeing that the loneliest time of their life was in their teens, this is something we should question further.

A relationship between generations

Could a reason that younger people feel the most lonely be a disconnection with their wider context? In the past, education was much more story driven, now it’s all fast facts. From ancient shamans to village elders and all the way up to our ancestors, knowledge was passed down and preserved using stories. Until recently, communal narrative had been upheld through schools, shops, high streets and neighbours. People lived more locally and had a better understanding of their place in society.

Whether we know our grandparents or not, we are part of a lineage of generations. Our parents’ parents grew up in, worked through, and saw a completely unknown world to many of us. World wars, extreme human/worker/gender rights issues and mass poverty had different effects on the population to the struggles that we face now, where constant war is as proxies to direct conflict. They saw technology becoming domesticated, through small televisions and household appliances and grappled with the way a move to an online world has affected society at large. How can we possibly comprehend these inexhaustible differences other than to speak with our older community members in depth and listen to their life stories. In recognising our differences, realising our similarities and our shared humanity, we find meaning and bridge the gaps between our common life story.

“A relationship with an older person can provide a young person with a link to the historical narrative of our country, and further afield. The government has identified that this link can strengthen a young person’s sense of citizenship and commitment to future civic engagement.” (Youth Citizenship Commission, 2009)

The age of ageism

This new autonomy between one generation and the next has negative effects for older members of society too. They were once constant and valuable sources of wisdom, but are losing this worthy title. Frederick Seebohm (2010)states that the key to social care is to enable ‘the greatest possible number of individuals to act reciprocally, giving and receiving service for the well-being of the whole community’. This would suggest that physical isolation in itself is not the issue, and that the lack of a useful role in society is a factor in the development of loneliness.

Disconnect between age groups can also lead to lower levels of trust in one another and lower expectations in friendships. Ageism is something that has become so subtly woven into our day-to-day that we probably don’t often realise it to be a problem, the language of “anti-aging” creams being a case in point. But like any -ism, it’s in part a misunderstanding. Research from the Royal Society for Public Health (1) evidences such misbeliefs, showing that a quarter of millennials believe it is “normal” for an older person to be unhappy or depressed, and even more believe there is no way to escape dementia as you get older. An unnerving issue here is that we are at risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Previous research shows that “people with negative attitudes about ageing live seven and a half years less on average, experience increased memory loss, have a greater risk of depression and anxiety, a reduced ability to recover from illness, less interest in diet and exercise and a more negative body image” (RSPH).

“[W]e need realistic portrayals of ageing that overall reflect both the challenges and opportunities in later life” (RSPH). We need to hear the stories of others, to be able to understand and tell our own.


The Life Stories Project

Four years ago a small group of residents from a rural village in East Sussex sought to tackle the loneliness and connection issues they saw occurring within their community. They set about embarking on a project initially called ‘The Biography Project’ and teamed up a group of young students with older partners.

The focus of the programme was on tackling isolation and recording the stories of the older people. However, as time went on, that focus changed. It became clear that the bigger achievement of the programme was in creating social contact between generations. Young and old benefited equally from this shared experience, learning from one another, and each becoming a part of the other’s life story. They went on to run two more projects and changed the name to the “Life Stories Project”.

In 2017 Life Stories received funding from the National Lottery and ITV’s Peoples’ Projects and with it directors Julie Rezac, Charlotte Harvey and Hannah Fincham devised and designed a website, and a refined toolkit of everything needed to support the running of the project.

They also worked with interaction and technology specialists Studio Hato, to develop what has now become a bespoke online programme with which the younger participants get to input their older partner’s story and send it off to be professionally printed and bound. The programme comes in at the end of a series of interviews, with the help of training sessions and their Life Stories work books, the students collate their older partner’s stories. They then type these into the online interface, adding photos as they go, watching their words materialise into book pages in real-time.

The project teaches deep listening and conversational skills, building confidence in the younger generation to engage and connect with those out of their peer group.

‘I’ve become great friends with my partner….we have a real laugh together’ — Life Stories Student participant.

As the younger participants progress through the project they see a multitude of skills pulling together into one final tangible tome. A physical marker of the lessons they’ve learned and moments they’ve spent with someone. In an age of immediacy and digital disintegration, this proves a powerful feat.

Older participants of the Life Stories project have reported that they get satisfaction from telling their young partner about the way things used to be and what they’ve learned over their lives. Their life stories are a legacy for the following generations. The young participants get an opportunity to hear a first-hand account of history and learn from previous generations.

“This taught me better than history books.” Life Stories participant

Life Stories challenges ageist stereotypes. It is vital for young people to have positive associations with the old and teen participants of the project have been surprised to realise that they have negative ageist attitudes about older people. The most common thing Life Stories hear is, “This project made me see that old people were young once too.” Older people can also have a negative impression about the young; that they’re selfish, lazy or even threatening. A productive relationship with a young person can change that.

Life Stories is now a “project in a box”, providing the tools to run the Life Stories programme in any community, anywhere across the country. The project builds respect, trust and empathy between generations, making a community stronger. With initiatives such as this we hope to tackle loneliness together, delving into what it really means for different people, and encouraging the generations to use their differences to help each other feel more valued and connected.


To run the Life Stories in your community sign up to the free starter kit here, or to find out more about the project, check out their website here.

This full version of this article originally appeared on the new site Medium


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