Every traditional society in the world recognise they need to create a coming of age Rite of Passage ceremony. Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term Rite of Passage(ROP) in the early 1900’s – community- created and community directed experiences that transmit cultural values and knowledge to an individual(s). The ROP process not only guide’s the individual’s transition to a new status, but, equally important, it created public events that celebrated the transition and reaffirmed these community values, which inform and guide expectations for behaviours essential to the groups survival.
In February 2017, I attended an incredible Global Rites Of Passage Leadership Training in the hills of Mullumbimby, NSW ( yup, the sunrise from that tee pee was magical). Led by the talented Dr Arne Rubenstein, I found it was the missing piece in a puzzle I had been working on in my desire to help connect youth and the Elderly. Applying the thinking around the stages of Rites of Passage gave me a critical framework to complete the design of the intergenerational story sharing program I was working on.
Whilst for thousands of years, Rites of Passage events may have involved the killing of a lion, or walking over hot coals to prove the move into manhood, what is crucial today (as we have moved on from needing to hunt for our food) is the acknowledgment of social and moral maturing as a result of challenging encounters. I realised that for Teens today, this encounter could be entering an Aged Care environment and facing the ‘challenge‘ of an environment where there is no escape from the concepts such as ageing, immobility, dementia and even death.
In his TedX Talk below, Arne speaks of the concerning decline in life satisfaction graph that begins in the early teen years and troughs around age 16 that led him from practising as a GP to find out why ( watch his talk below if you want to know also!)
His subsequent study of ROP ceremonies around the world found that they always;
Involved story sharing, facing a challenge & an acknowledgment of their ‘spirit’
Marked shift from ‘child’ psychology (” I am the centre of the universe. It’s all about me ! I don’t take responsibility ” ) to ‘healthy adult’ psychology
Led to a deep and profound sense of belonging in their community, they learnt the history of their community and knew they were part of something bigger than them.
I developed STEP (Seniors and Teens Empathy Program) as one of the possible small solutions ( of many that will be needed in an wholistic approach to community mental health and wellbeing) to help halt that steep decline youth appear to be on, a program that aims to nourish and develop the souls of adolescents on their path to find purpose and meaning through a vision of life that is bigger than self.
STEP launched as an initiative between Bupa Aged Care, Kids Giving Back and Heart & Soul Story on October 10, 2017 (World Mental Health Day) and has been running with teens and aged care residents ( albeit due to the chaos of COVID changing our worlds in 2020, now as a virtual program). You can read more about the thinking behind this initiative here Intergenerational Programs .
“The development of purpose is intricately woven with the development of identity – the biggest problem growing up is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness”
Bill Damon, Stanford Lead Researcher Purpose & Adolescents
Using nature to show the important work we need to connect our young and old, share their stories and this be recognised by their community to ensure the ripple effect of the healing power of this story sharing is widened. This was an exercise I did as part of Dr Arne Rubenstein’s Rite of Passage Leadership training. It represented my wish to bridge the gap between young and old by bringing them together, the rocks on the side represented the challenges I thought I may come up against ( I didn’t know the half of it!) and the leaves in front represented the witness of the coming together of these two generations by their family and community, and the beneficial ripple effect this would have also on them.
Thank you Sarah Macdonald and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for having me in on Monday night to talk about intergenerational connection and the #seniorsandteensempathyprogram I’ve been running for the past 6 years in anticipation of the upcoming Old People’s Home for Teenagers. We need true connection now more than ever. I’m excited at the awareness, attention and national conversation the upcoming series is about to bring to the complex and interrelated issues of social isolation, community fragmentation and mental health. Authentic intergenerational connection can remind us of our common humanity and help bring meaning and purpose to the lives of all involved. I’ve been asked by a few who missed it how they can hear it, so please enjoy a transcript of our conversation here ( brought to life with a few photos of the journey discussed).
You’re listening to evenings with Sarah Macdonald
It’s about 22 minutes to 10:00, nightlife on your radio at 10:00 o’clock tonight. Are all your friends and connections about your own age? Or do you have friends across the ages? We all tend to live in our own little silos, don’t we, in modern life? But one of the aims of this show, actually, you probably may not know this, but we do try and bring people together. In the quiz, old and young will play. And all those ages in between, and all are welcome.
And tomorrow night on the show, we’re actually going to breach the cultural age gap between an X and a millennial, and have a bit of fun with that. And you’re also going to hear some interesting news tomorrow in terms of representing different intergenerational connection. And this has to do with the old people home series. Did you love the last one? Those four-year-olds skipping into an aged care facility, it just would make me cry happy tears the minute I turned that TV show on, and more is to come on this.
Samantha Heron runs an organisation called Heart and Soul Story, and she runs a Seniors and Teens Empathy Program. She’s passionate about intergenerational connection and rebuilding community, and she’s with us on the evening show tonight, welcome.
Oh gosh, that’s a good question. Look, it took me a really long time to actually be able to be okay with calling myself that. So, how would you define that? It’s just someone who’s interested in social impact, in whatever business they’re doing. It’s doing something for good, really.
Look, that’s a great question. I’m not going to go too far back, but I’ll take you back to when I was working on an end of life care project. And it took me into some aged care homes, and they just felt quite sad, some of them. A bit devoid of life and the spirit and community, and the laughter that I hear when I listen to this program, you might say. And I noticed, in particular, it seemed to lack children. So, I decided to start volunteering with my own three children who, at the time, were about one, four, and nine. And my oldest is now 16. And I think just the-
Yeah, it brought such joy. I think the thing that I found was, we might be there for an hour or so, and there wasn’t enough time to get around to see everybody, really. And, I really saw the reciprocal benefit that was occurring for-
Look, they were learning. There was a little story that I always remember, where my daughter, Indie, who’s now 11, was about four, and her preschool teacher at the time was from Egypt, and had told her about a trip that she’d been on recently to Egypt. And she went and talked to one of the residents one day, whose name was Judy, and she started telling her about a trip that she went on to Egypt to see the pyramids. And it was just this magic moment of connection where I could see my little four-year-old’s eyes just light up. And she was so excited. And every time we’d go back in, we’d go and talk to people, and she’d say, “Can I go and speak to Judy?” And so, you could see that she was just learning, and she’d made a friend. It didn’t matter that age difference, it was a true friend for her.
Yeah, look, we do. And I’ve had so many people along the journey who I’ve found to be amazing inspirations, and advisors and mentors for me. And I think of Hugh Mackay and how he talks about the importance of connection in our community. And I live in a wonderful neighborhood myself, it’s a small cul-de-sac street, and we have multi-generations in the street. And I love the fact that we’re able to speak to each other and talk to each other. But I think you’re right, sometimes that’s just starting to disappear these days, really.
Well, cul-de-sacs are good streets to live in, but we live in cul-de-sacs sometimes of our age groups. Hannah’s just texted me in saying, “Oh, I loved that show,” and they’re doing a teen one, Hannah, stayed tuned for more news. But she says, “I wish I had an older person, someone to drink tea with, to walk to the beach and share stories.” So there is that real yearning, isn’t there? But there’s not that access to find older people, or people of different generations.
Look, that’s right. And I think we’ve been through so much in the last couple of years, and we’re also on a bit of a treadmill. People are busy, but people choose to be busy, and we need to stop and take the time and really talk to our neighbours and look for opportunities.
And my passion in terms of bringing teenagers and older people together is to actually give both the opportunity to be heard, and both the opportunity to listen to each other. And I think that’s something that really needs to be kept in the forefront of our minds, is that bringing together youth and older people is not just about us making sure that our older people have someone who’s there for them, it’s actually making sure that our children have the older generation there to listen to them, because they’ve played a pivotal role for many years in being guides to our children.
That’s right. And you can’t be everything to your child, parents, can you? Definitely not. And so, we used to live more tangled up together as generations, and that doesn’t happen anymore. So a street’s, I suppose, a good place to start, because you see that constantly changing in a street. You see the older people sometimes moving out, and they love it when different families move in, and you get those different generations in one street. That’s how society should be, not just in our own age groups.
Look, that’s right. I have a background, I did a four year psychology degree, and then diverted into other careers. But I’ve always had a real interest in that. And Dr Arne Rubinstein was someone who I came across, who looked at this dip in life satisfaction that was occurring in early teenagers, and questioned why that was going on, and really looked at other Indigenous societies around the world and questioned whether we are giving our teenagers enough opportunities to really have, maybe not the sort of challenges that are chasing the lion or falling off a cliff as jumping off a cliff with a rope as might have been in the past, but are we actually giving our children the opportunity to have those challenges, and take those rite of passage opportunities?
And I looked at a framework for the program that I run as the aged care environment, as challenging for youth, and for teenagers who don’t often get to look at the idea and the concept of aging, and what that can involve.
I think a little bit of everything. And I think at the start, there’s a little bit of the concept of, “I’m not really sure, how am I even going to speak to somebody who’s this old, who has nothing to do with my generation, who doesn’t know anything about an iPhone or Snapchat, or-“
That’s right. And then also just the challenge of being brought into an environment where people are frail and elderly, and perhaps have to be in a wheelchair, or have had a stroke and are finding it difficult to speak. And really, the beauty I think is when we start to break down some of the barriers and give people the opportunity and the time. So, the program I run is over at least eight to nine weeks, it gives them the opportunity to really get to know the person, and the judgments that they’d made and the fears that they’d had start to dissipate. And they realise that they actually have a lot in common.
It’s quarter to nine, you’re on evenings on ABC Radio, Sarah Macdonald with you, and Samantha Heron as well. We’re talking about intergenerational connections. So, what do you do with this empathy program? Do you have older Australians and teens coming together within the aged care facility?
No. Well, nothing is ever going to replace face to face connection. Even, I’m sure for you here, it’s been hard having to do radio interviews over Zoom and whatnot, and so much nicer to have somebody come in and actually connect with them face to face.
No, that’s right. But what I’ve seen, because I really thought, when March, 2020 happened, and I went, “Oh my gosh, I run a face to face program in aged care, bringing teenagers into… That’s it. How is this ever going to work?” And then I went, “It’s got to work. They need us more than ever now.” It was the most isolating… people felt for the first time what social isolation really felt like. But they weren’t in age care really feeling what social isolation felt like, because-
Yes, we all got a bit of a taste, an idea of what that feels like. And teenagers also feel very socially isolated often, with their awkwardness, and they’ve got a lot in common in some ways with elderly Australians.
Look, absolutely. They really do. They can be misunderstood, they can be stereotyped, they can have judgments thrown at them. And you hear this, “Oh, they’re on their phones the whole time, they’re rude, they’re in packs on the trains.” And so, it’s really-
Well, you have that. And part of the program that I run is actually, before we throw them in together, we have an education element for both. We have a ‘Step in their Shoes’ for the older people to have a bit of a remember what it was like when they were teenagers, and have a talk about some of the stereotypes they might hold about the younger ones. And we do the same for the younger ones, and say, “Well, what do you think of older people?” And then, we start to talk about what some of those barriers and challenges are before they get together.
It’s confronting though, isn’t it, I suppose, also for kids and for teenagers, because when you’re young, you never think you’re going to get old. You know you are, intellectually, but you viscerally don’t really understand it until it starts happening. Does it help with that? Is that part of the empathy that develops between the generations?
Look, the feedback that I get from the students often astounds me. Just the level of gratitude, the level of self-awareness that they have at the end. That they realise that things like listening is so important. They learn how important patience is. They start to show an awareness of the fact that they were acting in ways that they might not necessarily have been as happy with before. So, there’s a real maturing, I think, as they go through. And they also have a lot of fun. It’s not just all serious empathy. There’s moments of real joy. And I think that that’s just so important to see when you have that connection over, be it a joke, or even taking the Mickey out of their parents. And I think that older people and grandparents, they have the ability to do that. They have the license.
Yes, they totally do. Well, a lot of grandparents in our society do care, don’t they, for younger kids in families? This is happening, we rely on grandparents so much, the whole economy would collapse without them, really. So, there is that alliance that develops, if that opportunity is there. But a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
Look, that’s right. And I think we owe our older people and our elders the dignity and the respect that they deserve. And it’s been a hot topic of conversation, of course, with the aged care crisis, and with our new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, saying that we need to do better. And part of doing better is, as a community, acknowledging that we actually need to take the time and find the ways to ensure that we are keeping not just our youth, not just our preschoolers, not just our teens, but every generation connected.
Yeah. Which generation do you think in some ways is the furthest apart? I don’t know, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Maybe it’s parents and teenagers, but that’s how it’s meant to be. That’s meant to be that pulling away.
It really is meant to be that pulling away. And some of the feedback I get from the teenagers is, they say, “We’re so busy, we’ve got so much on,” and it was actually really nice to just have an hour to stop and to talk. It was really special. And they say, “And to have someone to really listen to me.” And I don’t think they’re saying their parents don’t listen, but I think sometimes it’s just a different relationship. It’s a different type of listening that they’re getting.
Yeah. There’s expectation upon us isn’t there, really, and a whole lot of history that goes with it. And so, where do you think we can take these small programs like you’re doing, and the ABC’s program? Where are the opportunities here to spread this across society, across New South Wales and Australia?
Look, I think we really need to be talking about how… in the future, we see a vision where every school, we have a curriculum that’s the school of life, more so than the school of academics. And we know maths and English and everything is important, but how do we ensure that every classroom actually can now have a digital camera, have a digital screen, and be able to have a program where they can connect with aged care, or with people in the community?
So, we actually need to be having the conversations about how that happens, and how we do that. We’re not saying it’s going to be easy. They’re a simple idea, these programs, but they do still take a lot of complexity. They take a lot of coordination. I’ve met a number of wonderful people through the Australian Institute for Intergenerational Practice . And there’s some amazing programs across the country. Mark Silver runs one down in Victoria, Greg Cronan runs a video conferencing program here in New South Wales with primary schools. And it’s really about how we work together with government, with education, with schools, to say, “Why aren’t we doing this more?”
Yeah. I know there’s some aged care facilities that are next to schools, and I’ve always thought, “That’s the best place,” isn’t there? Because it’s right there, and that it’s so much easier for those, and they can hear the kids playing, and they can go in and take their pictures, and all that sort of stuff. So, you have actual cameras in the classroom, do you, to conduct with yours?
They’re Zooming in on a nice big screen in the classroom. I think not all aged care homes will have the massive, big screens, but they have access to iPads, and sometimes I’ve had to bring my laptop in and just go from… during Covid, we had to go from different room to different room, because they were being socially isolated.
So, there are many different iterations and many different challenges that we might have to face. But we can overcome any challenge. We’ve all been through the last two years, we can do anything we need to do. What we actually have to ensure is that we’re having the conversation, and I know that with aged care for four-year-olds, it was so popular, and so many people came up to me and said, “Oh, you do something like that, don’t you, with teenagers?” And I thought, “I can’t wait till they’re doing one with teens,” so it gets it in the national conversation so we start talking about, why aren’t we doing more of this?