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A new academic community at ISU focuses on developing intergenerational relationships

Four people mill about a display on intergenerational contact on ISU's campus. The display was part of a visioning event organized by the Center for Inclusive Intergenerational Environments, a campus grou
Courtesy
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Luke Russell, Center for Inclusive Intergenerational Environments
People mill about a display on intergenerational contact on Illinois State University's campus. The display was part of a visioning event organized by the Center for Inclusive Intergenerational Environments, a campus group exploring how to make the world less divided by age groups.

A new academic group at Illinois State University hopes to contribute to a growing body of research and practices that foster relationships between people of different generations.

Eight faculty members — seven from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and one from the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment — currently form the Center for Inclusive Intergenerational Environments (CIIE), which describes its mission as developing "meaningful relationships among people across generations, cultures, and abilities through inclusive social and physical environments."

Put simply, the goal is to rethink or rework social and physical structures that have led people to live highly age-segregated lives.

It's "really about this kind of epidemic of loneliness and this history of what I would call mono-generational practices," Luke Russell, an associate professor and CIIE member, said in an interview. "We oftentimes stay in areas where we only interact with people of similar ages, or at similar life stages as us. The team that we've brought together is really interested in... how do we get some of that intergenerational contact facilitated?"

The problem isn't a new one: Some research cites industrialization and a corresponding drive towards efficiency as the catalyst for dividing people by age, a practice that persists.

Luke Russell is an associate professor of human development and family science at Illinois State University and a member of the Center for Intergenerational Living.
Courtesy
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Illinois State University
Luke Russell is an associate professor of human development and family science at Illinois State University and a member of the Center for Intergenerational Living.

"In schools, we break people up by grade. We have senior centers that [are] very oriented towards one generation. And there are benefits to having some of those unique spaces," Russell said. "But I think we've lost something in the way we've atomized folks into these small groups."

The CIIL is relatively new, though Russell said the issues its members are hoping to address have been on their minds — and the focus of some research already — for a couple of years.

Since then, members have initiated a survey seeking feedback on physical spaces on campus and held community events earlier this spring, seeking to rethink how generational divides might play out on campus — and how those divides might be bridged via design changes or intentional programming.

"We've been trying to find community partners to try and do similar work with them on their physical spaces — like, 'Do you feel like [all] folks feel welcome?' If you don't, let's talk, let's figure that out," Russell said. "That's some expertise we feel like we can bring and we can do it for pretty cheap. If you were to hire a consulting firm to do some of the work we've done, you're out hundreds or thousands of dollars probably. We'll do it for free if you just talk to us."

Funding for the CIIE and its various initiatives has been provided by ISU's departments of Agriculture, Geography Geology and the Environment, as well as the Office of Research and Graduate Studies. And while while the CIIE is comprised of faculty members, Russell added that students have also been significant contributors to research and event organization — a collaboration that, in a way, lives the CIIE's mission of intergenerational contact.

"We seem to have fallen into this rut of interacting mostly with people like ourselves, or the same age as ourselves," he said. "But there's sometimes really, really wonderful things that happen when you cross those generational boundaries and share wisdom, insight, or appreciate the growth of others."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.