Bridging the (age) gap: Intergenerational friendships

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For most of my life, Auntie N was just one of my dad’s coworkers who I would see at our annual Super Bowl parties since I was a kid. 

Of my dad’s work party crowd, I liked her enough to remember her (the “nice blonde lady who always brings the yummy kale salad”), but it wasn’t until last year when I reconnected with her that we began an “intergenerational friendship.”

In the case of Auntie N and myself, our regularly scheduled, once-a-year relationship as acquaintances transitioned to friendship when I reached out to her about a potential collaboration between The Stanford Daily’s ad sales team and the Downtown Palo Alto Farmers Market. For the first time since starting college, I felt lucky to have stayed so close to home because it seemed my local connections were finally coming to fruition. Given Auntie N’s valuable position as a board member, I figured I was killing two birds with one stone; I could snag a new client and briefly catch up with an old acquaintance. I was expecting a 30-minute affair with a quick round of pleasantries, maybe a few jokes about my dad, before we got down to business. To my surprise, we ended up chatting for two hours about the market’s colorful cast of vendors, our favorite fruits and vegetables, the best local hiking spots, family and travel — with just a bit of business sprinkled in. I returned to the dorms that night without a signed contract but with Auntie N’s number in my phone and plans to meet for lunch soon.

Since then, it’s become apparent to me that an intergenerational friendship is much more than an opportunity to network. It’s learning to make avgolemono, raspberry plum jam and homemade honey butter from a local farmer’s market legend. It’s grabbing coffee together at Philz (the best in town, just try their Iced Ecstatic if you don’t believe me!) and strolling through Peers Park, admiring the quarantine-era teddy bears in the windows of every house we pass. It’s sharing stories about each other’s family, friends and coworkers because we both genuinely value the people we’ve kept in our lives. It’s catching up with a long, letter-like email (that is, funnily enough, somehow always easier to write than a short note to my professors) when life gets busy. It’s putting together little gifts — lip balms, recipe clippings, chocolate bars, fresh bread — to exchange at our next meet-up.

Indeed, Auntie N is the complete opposite of the stereotypical “boomer.” She’s vivacious, bubbly and admittedly better acquainted with “the trends” than I am — avocado toast, fuzzy socks and k-beauty products are a few of the pleasant discoveries she shared with me. I never processed the 40-year age gap between us until she explicitly told me the age she turned on her last birthday.

Nevertheless, our relationship has never been built on the stereotypical one-sided exchange of wisdom where the older person is a patient teacher and wellspring of advice for the younger one. While I recognize that Auntie N has experienced so much more of life than I have, when we’re spending time together, we’re just two people who love to bake, two people who’d rather chat over (the world’s best) kale salad than join my dad’s rowdier coworkers engrossed in a screaming match over the biggest football game of the year.

Besides all of our pleasant interactions, I am grateful to Auntie N in that our friendship has also been somewhat of a catalyst, encouraging me to shed any negative preconceptions about befriending older adults and accept new friendships as they come. While I initially felt like I would be judged for wanting to spend quality time with her, over time our meet-ups came to provide me with a sense of stability onboard the barreling train of college life. Thanks to Auntie N, I even learned to be more relaxed with my parents’ friends, a skill which proved invaluable in my befriending Dr. J. 

Like myself, Dr. J is a distance running addict. In fact, we share a tendency to wake up at 5 a.m. and fire up our bodies’ endorphins with a nice, long morning run. Unlike myself, however, she’s a go-getter training to complete a marathon by the age of 51 (and she would’ve done it before 50 had it not been for the pandemic!). We began meeting up to train together — her, to push her marathon pace, and I, to find a longer-distance running buddy — after admiring each other’s finishing times in Stanford Medicine’s 2019 MyHeart Counts race. Although I didn’t recognize her in the moment, I distinctly remember the flashes of brown hair in my peripheral vision as we sped towards the finish line, her long legs thundering beside mine.

Early on, she would insist that I was her “rabbit” — her pacesetter — but she’s since outpaced me, driven by a combination of extra solo training sessions and her incredible determination to smash her goal pace. When she texts me her latest half-marathon times, funnily enough, I more often than not find myself beaming like a proud parent. At the same time, though, the impressionable 20-year-old that I am is humbled yet infinitely more inspired. In 30 years will I be as motivated as she is, as knowledgeable and dedicated as she is, as pure awesome?

Similar to Auntie N, my relationship with Dr. J is not transactional. Despite the fact that I’ve come to see her as a role model, she is and always will be my first and favorite running buddy. When we’re out getting lost on trails and accidentally running miles more than planned, when we’re tripping over hidden tree roots or getting eaten alive by invisible insects, and even now when I’m injured and can only dream of running trails again, nothing makes me happier than to support my partner from the sidelines. 

Ultimately, intergenerational friendships are rewarding in ways that go beyond the younger generation’s expectations of a clever way to network or receive counseling. They can be nurturing and instructive, helping you achieve personal growth and consider new perspectives, or they can be inspiring in other ways, like challenging you with some healthy competition. 

However, while I sincerely treasure the friendships I’ve made with these two older women, it would be wrong to sensationalize these relationships as any more unique than just a normal friendship. Meeting up for coffee, spending a day at the farmer’s market or going out for a long run — these are all things I do with my peers as well. 

So yes, age gaps exist and it would be foolish to pretend they don’t, but who says they have to be friendship gaps as well?

This article is part of a series on sex, love and relationships in the digital age and during the pandemic.

Contact The Daily’s The Grind section at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Carissa Lee '22 is a writer for Arts & Life's Culture beat, an account manager for The Daily's Ad Sales team, and a member of the Social Media team. Her primary interests include Oxford commas, visual arts, and the culinary world--hence her passion for all things Arts & Life. When she's not obsessively scrolling through "Bon Appetit's" Instagram feed or going on long runs at 6 am to feel "productive," she is studying to major in Human Biology, with the intent to pursue a medical degree. Contact her anytime at carislee 'at' stanford.edu.