Fostering Communication Between the Youth and the Elderly

Fostering Communication Between the Youth and the Elderly
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By Li Yen |  

As our parents and grandparents get older, it’s time we repay them for the selfless devotion and care they have showered us over the years.

In 2010, National Family Council (NFC) launched an educational television commercial about filial piety. Titled ‘Father And Son’, the advertisement was part of the “Filial Piety” campaign supported by the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). It aimed to ‘inspire the young’ and drive in the importance of filial piety, a value that is receding in Singapore’s globalised society.
The commercial had a stirring tag line: “How one generation loves, the next generation learns”. Through this campaign, NFC hoped that parents would see the need to set an example for their children, so that today’s youth will care for their parents as they realise they will also inevitably grow old.

Bridging the Gap

In a bid to create a society more compassionate towards the elderly, MCYS and NFC’s campaign sought to address another problem – the generation gap between the young and the elderly.

As the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said in a press conference on Nov 25 last year, families still remain a crucial pillar of physical, emotional and financial support for the elderly.

Indeed, many elderly yearn for greater interaction with their grandchildren, so more opportunities should be created for these two generations to bond. A closer relationship between the youth and elderly will alleviate the elderly’s feelings of loneliness, and improve their well-being in their twilight years.

But bonding with the elderly is easier said than done. Youths often have a hard time communicating with their grandparents due to a generation gap. Many seniors above 65 years of age had grown up in a very different cultural and social environment. Many of them received little formal education and were brought up in more difficult times that were wanting in wealth and comfort. They held values of the past that may seem antiquated or even downright bewildering to the cosmopolitans of the modern age.

(R-L) Audrey Lam, Su Ching, Cindy Tan, Cindy Tan’s sister.

As such, the vast differences in value systems held by the young and the old create a pressure for both sides to strip their conversations and interactions down to the most mundane things in life – the lowest common denominator within their experiences.
Consequently, youths often find interactions with the elderly bland and banal. But this is usually not because the elderly are inherently boring, but because that is all they choose to say.

Hence, even when both generations are proximate in space, they are often far apart in thought. Many youths would rather spend an entire evening surfing the web than commit to a moment of sincere conversation with their grandparents.
I conducted an informal survey with some youths in Singapore to find out what they think about the elderly-youth relationship, and their answers are indeed what I have expected.

Audrey Lam, a student at Bukit Merah Secondary School, said, “I do feel that youngsters nowadays rarely communicate with their grandparents due to technology advancement. The youngsters will keep on looking at their phones, and hang out with their friends.”
“I feel that youngsters nowadays rarely communicate with their grandparents due to a generation gap; we don’t have many things in common to talk about,” said Foo Wenyu, a student at Jurongville Secondary School.

Other factors such as deterioration in sight and hearing and memory loss on the part of the elderly can also prevent the youths from communicating with them.

This is the case for Lim Zihang, a student at ITE College East. He said, “It takes some time for me to communicate with my grandparents because they can’t hear very well.”

For student Xiang Ting, she finds it hard to talk to her grandparents because she does not really speak Hokkien. Language barrier is another hurdle for inter-generational communication in Singapore.

“If I don’t have a language barrier with my grandmother, I will talk to her every day,” remarked Chen Shengxi, a student at Jurongville Secondary School.

“Maybe they can show more care through actions, like buying food for their grandparents or bringing them out. These things do not require much communication,” voiced Geak Teng, a student.

An Old Person is a Family Treasure

A key to bridging the gap is to appreciate the fact that the inter-generational relationship is not a one-way charity, but a relationship of mutual love and support.

The MSF report on ageing families in Singapore noted that elderly persons play a key role in the family. Very often, they are the confidants or caregivers of the family. Their value to the family has not gone unnoticed. In a local study, the majority of respondents surveyed held people positive views on the importance of inter-generational ties and filial values.

Filial piety is an important part of traditional Chinese culture. A Chinese saying goes: “An old person is a family treasure” (家有一老,如有一寶). There is also a similar saying in Indian culture,“One should always be grateful for the advice one receives from elders.”
Indeed, as the elderly have journeyed through life, their words are not vain beliefs, but hard learnt lessons. Even if their lives are not ideal, or if they are not stellar role models, our seniors are repositories of experiences to learn from. Therefore, youths are advised to seek counsel from or simply sit down for a chat with their grandparents. Doing so will not only benefit them, but it can also bridge the inter-generational gap.

“The person I respect most is my grandfather. He is like a treasure to me. He taught me life values. For example, I cannot owe people anything especially favour because it is very difficult to return,” said Geak Teng.

Audrey Lam learned from her grandparents to be grateful for what she has. “As my grandparents have gone through the Second World War, they know what life is like under those tough and harsh conditions. This is why they want me to be grateful for what I have, for instance, not wasting my food.”

Su Ching, a student at Bukit Merah Secondary, learnt from her grandparents what it means to respect others. “They taught me to treat people nicely, and that I should think of others, like what is good for others, and not just about me.” She added, “The elderly [are treasures] in the family as they know more about life than us.”

SOLVENT – A Communication Method

At the end of the day, the former MCYS has a light-hearted tip to share – for better interactions with grandparents, young people can try SOLVENT – a method of communication.

To communicate effectively, one should slow down (S), maintain an open posture (O), lean forward to convey interest (L), lower the pitch and adjust the tone (V), maintain eye contact (E), address the elderly by name (N), and lastly, touch the elderly to express warmth, care and acceptance (T). Besides physical gestures, young people should also learn to listen.

“The key issue is time, attention, care and concern,” said then-MCYS Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who was the guest-of-honour at the inaugural YO! (Youth and Old) Forum held in 2009.

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