Lonely together

Megan Yakabuski, 21, is pictured while participating in an intergenerational panel on loneliness and connection in Vancouver on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

There is a more than 50-year age gap between Diane Skippen, 78, and university student Megan Yakabuski, 21, but when the two women met for the first time in front of cameras at a CBC studio they found they had something very much in common — the desire for more human interaction.

Skippen said there’s a lot she can learn from interacting with Yakabuski and people her age, like what the heck they are talking about sometimes.

“You have to interact with these young people to find out what they are thinking,” said Skippen. Often, she says she can’t follow the conversations of young people in movies or when she spends time with younger members of her extended family.

In Yakabuski’s case, she thinks she could benefit from the advice and wisdom Skippen could offer her.

“I think there’s a lot of things that we can learn with more life experience,” said Yakabuski.

Click here to watch a conversation between Diane Skippen, 78, and Megan Yakabuski, 21.

The two were introduced when CBC Vancouver set up an intergenerational meet-and-greet to hear why some of the oldest and youngest in the province feel disconnected from each other and what can be done about it.

Diane Skippen, 76, is pictured while participating in an intergenerational panel on loneliness and connection in Vancouver on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

According to a 2019 survey of almost 8,000 British Columbians by the Vancouver Foundation, the youngest and oldest generations yearn the most for community connections. The foundation calls the youngest generation, ages 18 to 24, iGen, and refers to the oldest demographic, ages 74 and above, as matures.

The youngest demographic felt they were the least likely to have a voice in what happens in their community, while older respondents were most likely to feel they didn’t have anything to offer other demographics.

An increasingly age-segregated society may be to blame for this feeling of disconnection, according to gerontologist Barbara Mitchell. She says when people feel they don’t have anything to contribute to other demographics, it can drive them further into social isolation.

Yakabuski disagrees with the notion that the oldest generation has nothing to offer.

“A lot of times they have been through the same struggles we have and can provide some advice and wisdom,” said Yakabuski, who thinks — in this era of social media — that people in her generation would benefit if they interacted more with people face-to-face.

Watch a conversation between Dieter Kirste, 86, and Filip Jazwinsky, 20, from our intergenerational meet-up.

Technology is one barrier the pair agreed can isolate people in both groups. In today’s world, dating apps have replaced sock hops, Netflix has replaced going to the movies, and social media has replaced dropping in for a social visit.

“You are interacting with machines more than humans,” said Skippen to Yakabuski. “Your life experience is so much different than us.”

Despite being able to connect with ease online, Yakabuski, who is a fourth year Bachelor of Arts student at the University of British Columbia, guesses most of the more than 50,000 students at the school have experienced loneliness.

“Everyone puts up a front to pretend they aren’t lonely but as soon as you talk to someone, layers are removed and you realize everyone is in the same boat, feeling like they should be going out, meeting new people and making new friends,” she said.

Skippen says one way to help both age groups would be to encourage organized interactions with children and older people at community centres and long-term care facilities. If the youngest and the oldest are socialized together early it could benefit everyone in the long run.

“I think we could learn from each other, the younger, older and the guys in the middle as well,” said Skippen.

Watch a conversation between Yu Li and Natanya Katz, 17, from our intergenerational meet-up.

Mitchell has noticed throughout her research that young people who aren’t regularly exposed to the company of older people display ageist views and this works in the reverse, too.

At an intergenerational panel, people met to talk in pairs about loneliness and connection in Vancouver on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

She said the older generation can harbour the belief that young people are often glued to their phones, uninterested in meaningful connection. Mitchell believes this lack of understanding can leave both groups feeling that their contributions are not viewed as meaningful by the wider community.

“Ageism is definitely going to put up a lot of barriers to communication between the generations,” said Mitchell. “It does a major injustice to feelings of inclusion, if we live in an age-segregated community you can well imagine how social isolation can set in.”

The answer, she says, is to get iGen and matures talking.

This story is part of CBC Vancouver’s series Still Lonely? Airing on CBC Radio One’s The Early Edition from Nov. 25-29, with features on CBC Vancouver News at 6 and cbc.ca/bc.