Holiday gatherings often bring several generations together at once. But what if your extended family - grandparents, aunts and uncles - live across the country or across the globe? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken found opportunities for intergenerational connections for Bay locals willing to commit time and attention to their neighbours.

Building, baking, bonding

It's a sunny Thursday morning when I meet Sandy and Chris Green at a popular bakery in Tauranga's Avenues. The Aongatete couple are in town for their weekly "play date" of shopping, movie-going and hanging out. She's a retired operating theatre nurse; he's a retired nurseryman. Both are 72-years-old. While sipping a long black and a flat white, they tell me about their volunteer work in Katikati the past year helping young mums and school children.

One programme they're involved with called Mini Mums was started by Katikati Maori Wardens. It's a coffee and connection group where mums range in age from late teens to mid-20s. Sandy says: "They think of us as their family now. We had a Christmas 'do and they made lunch, which was absolutely marvellous. We learn a lot from them, because we don't have anything to do with teenagers." The Greens say mums choose workshops which have included growing fruit and vegetable plants and budgeting.


Chris adds: "We're not there to change anybody's life. We just do the things we enjoy doing and if some of them pick it up, that's great."

The Greens also helped Year 6 children during Skills Club at Katikati Primary School. Once a week for one hour, students learned baking, knitting, sewing and gardening. Chris, who says he wouldn't call himself a woodworker, helped the children build basic projects. "I was quite worried for a while until I realised they don't want to make china cabinets [he laughs], at least not straight away." He says the group used old pallets to make planters and bird boxes. Sandy says: "They're so much fun. And it's become quite a thing to belong to the club." She recounted how one child tried to pick peas from the school garden. "The whole plant came out. They saw the peas and they didn't know, and the whole plant came out." More laughter. Another child ate an entire cucumber. "They love the planting and the harvesting," says Chris. The tending and weeding, not so much.

Katikati Primary School learning support teacher Jan Bibby said 27 children, ages 10 and 11, benefit from the expertise of around 10 Skills Club volunteers, 90 per cent of whom are retired. She said many students come back term after term to try new things while developing relationships with mentors (all of whom are police vetted). "Many of them enjoy being nurtured by someone older. Having that relationship with a grandparent-type figure was very big...and some children were allowed to do things with woodworking and baking they weren't allowed to do at home." Bibby says giving back is a basic part of the human condition; something that gives life purpose. "When you're older you have so much to contribute back to society and sometimes there's so little opportunity. It's an awesome addition to the culture of the school to have the intergenerational input."

The Mini Mums and Skills Club are facilitated by a national not-for-profit trust called SuperGrans. The organisation matches men and women with life skills and clients with a desire to learn. Katikati SuperGrans WBOP co-ordinator Anne Billing says the Mini Mums group meets each Monday during school terms. Two mums team up with one SuperGran. When we spoke earlier this month, Billing says the group had just finished making homemade bath bombs and Christmas decorations. "Just educating them in ways they can save money and be more friendly to the environment."

Mini Mum participant Kaitlin Ririnui says she's learning skills that'll help her family, including her 2-year-old daughter. "We've learned how to make homemade laundry liquid, soap, multipurpose spray...the stuff we buy from the shop is full of chemicals and when we make it, it doesn't have that many chemicals in it; it's safer for the kids." The 19-year-old says SuperGran volunteers are always supportive. "They're really helpful with the babies. They have good knowledge... and talk about what they went through with their kids."

Connecting in a time of flux

Tauranga social gerontologist Carole Gordon researches the role of older adults in New Zealand and advocates for age-friendly policies. The national convenor for Supa-NZ (which awards age-friendly business accreditation) said breaking down barriers benefits everyone, though current housing trends may hinder connection. "The big thing in this city is we have more people locked away on retirement reservations than anywhere in the New Zealand, it's exploding and we're separating older people out." She says while some mature adults like the simplicity and security of retirement communities, others (like her) want to stay in their neighbourhoods. "On my street, there are lot of older people and a lot of children. Kids skate down the road; people are coming and going and people are walking their dogs. It's a mix of activity. You can bump into people in the street, which is lovely. I think that intergenerational disconnect is significant." However, Gordon says some retirement villages are choosing to be more open, bringing in pets and babies to overcome isolation. "It's an interesting time of flux. I think people are experimenting with how they want to live in later life. I feel really blessed through my work connections...with the younger people I interact with. I enjoy their company and they enjoy mine."

Open gates

One Tauranga aged care facility forming bonds across generations is Radius Matua. Activities co-ordinator and registered diversional therapist Klara Luxford Rulisek says the village's mums and bubs group started in January this year after an ex-staff member had a child. The ex-staffer initiated the group, which meets twice monthly, drawing eight to 12 children and parents and at least 20 residents. Luxford Rulisek says some residents have no grandchildren or great-grandchildren nearby, and seeing babies brings smiles. "We had one of the really little babies being passed on, getting cuddles from person to person. Human contact's really lovely."

Radius Matua also gets visiting children from a Brookfield kindergarten, some of whom have grandparents living in the facility. Luxford Rulisek says special relationships have formed between residents, the mums and bubs group and kindergarteners. "One of the girls [mums] came in and said, 'My child's grandparents live abroad and to actually have the interaction with an older generation, it's so important.' The kids get to see not all people are young. Some people are in wheelchairs. It's just a learning curve for everyone."

Sharing the love of reading

Noelene Shrimpton has been a volunteer reading tutor at Mount Maunganui Intermediate for about a decade. The 90-year-old spent an hour each week in the middle of the school year listening to 11 to 13-year-olds read. "It's fascinating...we have lovely conversations, just short conversations. It's been relaxed, and enjoying each other's company. They give me pleasure and I try to help them." Shrimpton remembered what one girl wrote on her 90th birthday card. "N__ put, 'Happy birthday to you, and have a great day and keep safe and sensible'," the volunteer chuckles from her plastic chair in the school library. Shrimpton plans to keep encouraging young readers at least one more year. "I hope they'll tell me when I'm starting to go."

Learning assistant Jo Heke said around half her 10 tutor readers are retired; the other half are parents. "Once they turn up, they love it. We're just so fortunate to have the older people in the community who want to give back to these students." Heke says volunteers share a wealth of knowledge. "They can talk about how it was when they went to school, how changed it is. And kids today are shocked you might have ridden a horse to school; you walked to school; you didn't get driven. You didn't have iPads." Heke says not all students embrace reading to older adults, which is to be expected. "But on the whole it really is amazing just how kids react and just enjoy their time with them."

Volunteer visitors

One programme connecting people mostly in their seventh decade to those in their ninth decade and beyond is Age Concern Tauranga's Accredited Visiting Service. The service provides companionship and support for older people who may be lonely and socially isolated. Volunteers must be selected, police checked and trained before they're matched with a client. Service co-ordinator Pat Duckmanton says her youngest visitor is 28, though most are aged 60 to 80. Clients are mostly in their 80s; the oldest is 102.

Duckmanton says volunteers must commit to one-hour weekly visits, which can be a barrier to people caring for children or older parents. She said the agency carefully matches visitors with clients, and many spend extra time together. "A lot of our clients don't get out of the house anymore. They don't drive; they're dependent on others for transport. If they don't have any family, that has a bigger impact." Duckmanton says one visitor brought a client to see new housing developments in Papamoa East; others have brought their older person to see cruise ships and have an ice cream. "Simple things like that can make such a huge positive difference to the well-being of an older person. We don't ask our visitors to take clients out. It develops over time once a friendship has developed."

Duckmanton says the service has more than 80 clients and just over 90 visitors, but could easily double those numbers with more staff time and volunteers. "I'm having to turn down referrals for our service because we don't have enough suitable visitors."

Faith and friendship

Religious institutions such as churches, mosques and temples have long fostered relationships from cradle to grave. Bethlehem Baptist Church senior associate pastor Michaela Vernall says every BBC programme, from big events like The Night Before Christmas to regular weekday meetups, to overseas trips, are intergenerational. "All the people who come in and serve in those areas are in a voluntary capacity. They range from younger teenagers to our seniors and everyone is mixing it up here. We find connections between the generations are really strong and our younger people are really appreciative of the wisdom of the older people and their funniness - it breaks down barriers." Pastor Vernall says the oldest volunteer, aged 92, is like the grandma of the church. "She always has in her bag little cards, toys that she hands out to the young ones. She's the biggest encourager on the planet."

As with other agencies and organisations featured in this article, Bethlehem Baptist Church requires adult volunteers to be police checked.

Lasting links

Sociologist Carole Gordon says planning for what she calls 'lifetime neighbourhoods' is crucial. "Unfortunately, we've got sprawling urban spaces that aren't well designed for community connectivity and we need to be mindful about that." Gordon says shared areas and personal motivation are two important factors stimulating intergenerational activity. She advocates for ongoing, meaningful interactions rather than "'token" relationships. "Like when schools go on a visit to an old people's home and more or less pat them on the head, give them a cup of tea as if they haven't seen one before." If we're going to live to 100-years-old, Gordon says we need quality relationships emphasising shared interests, not highlighting an age gap. "I don't think we should be over-welfaring older people. If you're well and able, get on and have a good life. You can't wait for someone else to make it happen."

Age Concern Tauranga Accredited Visiting Service

More grans (and grandpas) needed

SuperGrans Katikati co-ordinator Anne Billing says the organisation will roll out more one-on-one mentoring services next year, as well as workshops focusing on home and life skills. She says the trust would like to run similar programmes in Tauranga. SuperGrans Western Bay of Plenty receives support from The Warehouse Tauriko and the Wright Family Foundation.

Greying of the Bay

Statistics New Zealand predicts 1.7 million people will be aged 65 or more by 2033. Nearly 600,000 of those people will be aged 75 or over within the golden triangle of Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland.

The number of people in Tauranga over 65 is expected to reach almost one-third of the population by 2033.

Studies and benefits of connection

Staff at independent research group Legacy Project (based in Canada) say intergenerational connections are vital for the health of society. Legacy researcher and educator Susan Bosak writes: "It's the experience of life in a multi-generational, interdependent, richly complex community that, more than anything else, teaches us how to be human." Research shows children who have close, long-term connections with older adults (even with non-related mentors) have a better sense of their history; are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and skip school; have better emotional and social skills; are introduced to new activities and ideas; and become more comfortable with ageing.

Benefits to older adults include a second chance to spend time with young people (especially if they have regrets about not spending enough time with their own children); lower rates of depression; better physical health and higher degrees of life satisfaction. Mature adults who interact regularly with children also have an opportunity to leave a legacy.

Bosak writes the success of isolated intergenerational programmes and projects is clear. "The challenge now lies in going beyond a project or programme here or there to making a larger commitment to intergenerational connections so that they become a part of daily life and the social fabric."