Young and Old Learn Together in “Life Swap” Experiment

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 16 July 2012

Now and then, I’d tune in to an episode of “Wife Swap,” just for fun (or if there was nothing else on TV). In typical reality show fashion, things were definitely over-dramatized, and I could tell that the editing was strategically done.

But I’ve always been interested in observing human behavior and family dynamics, and the show provided plenty of opportunities to see parenting and interpersonal relationships at their best and worst moments. Sometimes, I even learned something new: note to self, “remember not to do that when you have kids” or “don’t treat your husband that way no matter how stressful motherhood is.” It wasn’t an altogether wasted hour of television if I could take something away from the show and apply it to my life.

In 2011, pensioners — the European word for retirees — and young people in the UK participated in a “life swap,” as this BBC News Magazine article describes. Similar to “Wife Swap,” four teens and twentysomethings spent three weeks in a Surrey retirement village with 73-year-old Betty Dunbar and her neighbors; the seniors then spent three weeks in the youth’s homes. According to the piece, 83-year-old Roy Hone had his first “jagerbomb” (a cocktail of Red Bull and Jagermeister) during his time with Zoe Day, a beautician.

Both the old and young were quite surprised by what they learned.

Some found that they shared similar interests, and others learned how to use social media to connect with friends and estranged family members. Some of the seniors ended up changing their point of view on a long-held belief just by talking to the teens, and the teens learned to respect their elders in a way they didn’t think possible. In a few cases, there were deep emotional breakthroughs on issues of grief and loss, and some of the youth had to engage in caregiving responsibilities (bathing, feeding, and dressing), which turned out to be quite the eye-opening experience.

The new perspectives were invigorating on both sides.

It really came down to feelings, the universal things that we share no matter what our age. Said Zoe Day, “Just to be able to sit down and talk to someone and understand how they’re feeling, you don’t feel the years between you.”

The experiment brought to mind what many medical and nursing schools are now requiring of their students: a rotation that involves “geriatric sensitivity training.” In these courses and programs, students may be asked to wear rubber gloves, goggles smeared with Vaseline, and other physical barriers to simulate age-related losses and limitations.

At the MIT Age Lab in Boston, researchers have created AGNES, the Age Gain Now Empathy System, to do just that. Watch and learn:

The great thing is, you don’t have to don an AGNES suit or participate in a life swap just to get a fresh perspective on things at either end of the spectrum. Most of us know people of various ages, and it’s just a matter of reaching out and getting to know them better.

Building relationships is the best way to break down the barriers we’ve created. Examine your viewpoints and see where a new connection may be helpful in refining or revising them.



Do you have something to say?