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The age-defying benefits of intergenerational friendships

When Rory Switzer signed up for a volunteer program at his workplace, he would return home having met one of his new best friends. He and his new friend spent their first day together swapping stories about their pasts, uncovering a mutual passion for poetry, and discussing world politics.

But his new friend wasn't a fellow 34-year-old. He wasn't another volunteer, either. He was one of the dozens of residents living in Feros Care’s Kingscliff residential aged care village. Despite a four-decade age-gap between the pair, it took a simple 'hello' to spark a strong connection between Rory Switzer and Barry Hicks.

"I think being Canadian and not having any grandparents around or even parents...there was something really fulfilling about it," Rory said.

"It wasn't just about giving back to him, and there was obviously a really great feeling of seeing the joy on his face of someone appreciating his poetry, but I just thought he was so cool."

Rory, who works with our friends at Stone and Wood, continued to visit Barry after they first met in May last year.

"After that day, we kinda just kept in touch. I would just pop in there once a month, say g' day and we would usually just go over more of his poetry that he had found so he would be showing me new poetry, old poetry or stuff that he'd been working on."

"That turned into me taking one of his pieces of poetry that he called “The Perfect Hour” and I put it to a song that I was working on."

"I mean, it never turned into a hit that was on the radio or something, but it was something that was very fulfilling for both of us."

After lock-down measures put their visits on-hold, Rory put pen to paper. He wrote letters to Barry, sometimes sharing the lyrics of his new songs, and other times discussing what was going on in the world. It was Rory's way of staying connected, even while they couldn't be in the same room.

"Because he talks quite low, we haven't attempted a phone call, but I sent some letters about 2 or 3 weeks ago, and I've got it on my to-do list to send him another one this week."

"I don't expect to hear back from him because with his fingers it would take him quite a long time to try and type me a letter, so it's kinda one-way communication at the moment."

"As soon as restrictions are lifted, whether he likes it or not, he and his cat Pepper will be getting another visit from me."

Loneliness in older age

We know that almost one-quarter of people living alone are older Australians and, like Barry, many of these people don't get visitors too often. Whether it's a disability, geographic location, lack of transport, or a lack of social confidence, it's not always easy for these people to get out and about either. This growing number of isolated seniors has some health professionals pretty concerned about the future of our community.

Central Queensland University Behavioural scientist and Gerontologist, Adjunct Professor Lynne Parkinson recently shared her worries with ABC.

"Social isolation has been a major issue for Australia, with older people, particularly those in rural areas, people with disabilities, and people with mental health issues being at risk for social isolation and the impacts of that isolation," Professor Parkinson said.

"The impacts are physical, such as poorer health and higher death rates. Loneliness is as deadly as smoking. It's a wicked problem that cannot be easily solved."

Bridging the age gap

Could Barry and Rory have cracked the code to tackling the loneliness of our older Australians?

Bringing people of different ages brings a range of benefits for everyone involved, from boosting feelings of wellbeing to gaining a new perspective. Friends like Barry and Rory usually experience stronger and longer-lasting relationships than those that only connect with people of the same generation too.

17% of intergenerational friends see each other every day.

34% of intergenerational friends catch up every week.

These catch-ups might just be for a quick cuppa or a walk around the block, but these moments can make an enormous difference in someone’s week. We also know that when we feel supported and connected, we feel less lonely too.

After all, quality time together is a simple way to show we care.

As we learnt from Rory and Barry, your new best friend could be just a conversation away. Start by saying hello. You never know how much it could mean to someone.

Our Let’s 5 Loneliness campaign is full of other great ideas to show your kindness, whether it’s towards someone much older, much younger, or the same age. If you are interested in volunteering you can always visit In Great Company, our volunteering site. Meanwhile, our partnerships with organisations such as Stone & Wood provide a brilliant opportunity for employees to sample the benefits of volunteering with many, like Rory, making it a part of their life.

Contact Jo Winwood, Head of Be Someone For Someone at [email protected] to hear more about corporate volunteering opportunities.