Intentional Deep Experiences Across Lifecycles

Why IDEAL 18 Now

Diana Ganger

I have been harnessing my passion for intergenerational work for many decades. I completed my M.S.W. from Washington University in St. Louis with a specialization in Family Therapy and Gerontology. Ironically, I was already engaging in intergenerational work, as I accepted my diploma along with my second child, who was less than one month shy of being born.
My M.S.W. was a natural extension of my B.S.W at Haifa University, where I majored in Gerontology, the first year the department opened. I chose to do my fieldwork at “Beit HaRofe L’Kashish,” a very well-known retirement community for physicians and their families. The community accepted my proposal to start a social work department, led by a student finishing her B.S.W., who was still getting her feet wet (sound familiar?). One of many learning opportunities came when I, 22 years-old, attempted to play a memory game with the residents and quickly learned that this group was the wrong age for it because they were frustrated as this game was drawing on their lacks rather than their strengths, continuously highlighting their memory loss. That year of trial, error, reflection, and retrial was a time of immense learning.
As part of the fieldwork, I met with a group of residents who, for the first time, discussed how they survived the Holocaust. It became apparent that some of them had never discussed these excruciating memories with their families, or one another. This group met on a regular basis and shared stories of survival in the the worst conditions imaginable. These meetings were cathartic, and deepened the bonds between each other in a powerful way. My learning curve as a facilitator was steep on many levels. As one member died, I learned to live in the dissonance of leaving his chair empty, and to remember.
I realized that in order to augment joy and connection we needed something…or someone more. A high school was a few steps away, and I asked for a partnership- could we build an intergenerational program? High schoolers were paired with residents, and began to visit their new friend on a regular, weekly basis. The stories that emerged, and the joy it brought to both friends in the relationship, was powerful and palpable. These visits transformed the overall feel of the place. It was a win-win.
From there, my life journey took me to the United States via St.Louis. After another internship in Family Therapy, and another residential Grandfriend center, I moved to Chicago and worked in Early Childhood Jewish Education as an educator and director at an early childhood center. I experienced the other end of the lifecycle, as my family grew and I wanted to stay closer to my two children, Sharon and Yoni. Coming from Social Work, I realized that a child could only belong by having their family belong, and I spent years creating a family-centered program. Once the system grew in the quality of its services, I went back to the roots of my career- I realized that the grandparents were missing. In the early 1990’s, we began to invite grandparents whose grandchildren were at school to join us on a weekly basis, and adopt a classroom. Many chose to be where their grandchildren were, yet others chose a separate classroom feeling that they could not be relational to everyone and fair with their time and efforts if they had their own grandchildren in the class. The beauty of it all was that the grandchildren graduated, and yet the grandparents chose to stay. We then opened this opportunity to others who wished to participate even though they had no grandchildren in the program. As the program grew, we tweaked and we learned. We created protocols such as interviews, a set of expectations, and training for the grandparents.
The program took off, and the experienced joined the young. They had snacks and lunches together, enriching the conversations at the table.
Grandfathers in particular loved the opportunity. They had spent their younger years busy “making” it economically to support their families, and missed the joys of early parenting and the deeper ordinary connections in the day to day routines with their children. They embraced a second chance with gusto!
The grandparents were immersed and present with the children.
From then, until a couple of years ago, Veronica Maravankin (then the early childhood director at the JCC in Palm Beach) asked to discuss the process of creating an intergenerational program, and together with a volunteer grandparent launched the process. Having another school pick up from our experience, create its own protocols as a result of our conversations , and then give it its unique flavor to the program solidified our learning experience and the importance of implementing high quality intergenerational programs.
I believe that there is a new urgency to benefiting from having the experienced and the young bond on a regular basis, given the way that families and relationships are shifting in a rapidly changing, techno world. The potential is enormous, especially when done intentionally, regularly, and in with many relational opportunities. It is one in which the same child bonds with the same experienced person on a regular basis and vice versa. Both will look forward to seeing one another. They will know about each other’s favorite foods, books, music, birthdays and more. They will exchange stories of life memories, life dreams, and create new stories together.
I recognized a need for these relationships to have a platform to live organically and authentically on a regular schedule. This is giving potential to the healing properties of connection. Any and all Jewish early childhood educational centers can add this component to their family centered places to fulfill the mission of Kehillah.
It feels natural to unify my love for both age groups, and to highlight the family system as a whole. The creation of IDEAL18 supports intergenerational opportunities, shining a light on the wisdom of bringing generations together. From a family perspective, it is a winner. IDEAL18 is also interested in conducting research that we hope will benefit the youngest, the most experienced, and the family members in between.  We are interested in exploring what kinds of experiences, materials, languages (see 100 languages -link), previous preparations, learning opportunities and books are needed to maximize intergenerational bonds, elicit more joy and bring on the magic.