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Opinion: We need to make more friends with smile lines

Intergenerational connections can give college students the chance at a decades-long friendship filled with understanding and compassion


ASU junior Alysa Horton dancing with Frank Fitzhugh on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023 in Nampa, Idaho.

We're going to get old. Time will move forward, creases will become more prominent and we will learn to say more 'goodbyes' than 'hellos.' The way I plan to prevent this? Befriending people of all ages. 

Intergenerational friendships, or cross-generational friendships, are those where people have an age gap of 15 years or more. The concept can scare away many Gen Zers who are worried they will become the resource for iPhone advice. But I speak with more people over the age of 50 Thursday through Saturday than people in their 20s — and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

The truth is, friendships that venture beyond age curate new perspectives, aid in mentorship and reduce the need for comparison that's often prominent in friendships with people of the same age.

I've worked as a waitress in older communities for three years, first in an assisted living home and then in a retirement community, Mirabella at ASU, where I have been for seven months.

As I pour married Mirabella residents Bill Gates and Bobbie Reed their pot of half-regular and half-decaf, I hear stories about the classes they are taking to integrate into the college community right next to their home. Bill emails me about Taylor Swift's impact and says he finally understands why I love her music. 

"I've learned that people of your generation are going through some of the same hopes and fears I went through at your age," Gates said in a written statement. "I love the fact that while students hold the door for an old man, at least a few may sense it's worth spending some time getting to know me as a person, not just an old guy."

Bill learns about Taylor Swift from me; from him, I learn about what the newspaper world was like before the digital age. He tells me stories of his travels and the life he's created with Bobbie. Bill tells me I will be okay when I get to his age, and I believe him because if he's navigated it all, so can I. 

Bill and Bobbie have created intergenerational friendships through Mirabella and a pen pal program with a scholarship group at ASU. Their chance to connect with a new, younger friend isn't one that everyone gets to experience. According to AARP, almost one-third of older adults haven't made a new friend in at least five years. ​

Bill initially joined the pen pal program because he "wondered why college freshmen would want anything to do with oldtimers." He has two pen pals in the program: my roommate Drew and I. Bobbie's pen pal is Esther Low, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering.

"I originally connected with Bobbie because we both studied science, and she got her Ph.D. in chemistry," Low said. "So it's allowed me to understand how my degree can provide a career beyond my time at ASU. I've also learned a lot about how learning is not for any particular age group."

You regularly make friends until your mid-20s, but after you turn 25, your circle shrinks, and the people you contact daily continue to decrease. The difference with intergenerational friendships is that half of them will reach the 10-year mark of friendship, and one in five will see two decades together. 

Whether we want to admit it or not, it's nearly impossible to not compare ourselves to our similar-aged friends. I look in the mirror and pick out what's different from my other friends, or I sit in class and wonder how I'll get ahead of everyone else in the room. 

With my cross-generational friendships, I get to take a breath and listen to how none of my comparisons will matter when I get older. 

"It's not particularly common to have these kinds of friendships," Low said. "But (Bobbie and I) were talking over lunch about how our generations are so different, even our point of view. We can learn from each other in every single way."

No matter how much therapy we promise to go to, Gen Zers have a way of making their emotions more like a comedy skit. A looming fear of forming cross-generational friendships as a young person can be having to say goodbye to someone we grow to love and want more time with. 

The fact is that we could lose a friend too soon, no matter what age. Sure, it becomes more prominent when your friend collects social security, but we have the chance to celebrate the life we have, no matter how long it has left. We can’t lose opportunities for connection because we worry we’ll be without it one day. 

"Most of my contemporaries spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the past, myself included," Gates said. "It's so much more rewarding to communicate with people who are about to embark on careers and have decades of trial and error — and great successes — ahead."

The way to keep understanding and growing is by befriending young people; we can be that for someone else right now. Whether you want to grow your social circle or fear the unknown of the future, now is the time to make an unlikely friend.

Edited by Walker Smith, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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