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Across the generations, a campaign emerges to counter age segregation

Senior residents of Lasell Village attended a forensic class with Lasell College students.
Senior residents of Lasell Village attended a forensic class with Lasell College students.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

NEWTON — It was a criminal justice class for the ages.

Eleven students at Lasell College probed a mock murder at a local pot shop. The elaborate fictional plot — involving a tattoo parlor, a weed party, and a knife stuffed in a knitting bag — was concocted by residents of a retirement community on the college grounds.

The exercise, called “CSI Lasell Village,” matched undergrads with retirees in their 70s and older whose creativity provided a sense of drama. Students interviewed village residents playing the roles of stunned and suspicious crime witnesses. They analyzed blood type, fiber, and the stabbing angle, before concluding the killer was “Ellie,” an older woman whose jacket and shoes matched the threads and footprints left by the perpetrator.

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“Working with people who’ve had so much life experience made the students step up their game,” said professor Kimberly Farah, who directs Lasell’s forensic science program.

Lasell’s intergenerational classes are part of an emerging movement seeking to connect — or reconnect — people across the age spectrum. The aim is to break down age segregation, the increasingly pervasive and often well-meaning separation of younger and older people in American schools, housing, work, and even spiritual life.

Some leading the effort, including Marc Freedman, use the provocative term “age apartheid” to describe a society where people live parallel lives, divided by age, and seldom interact.

“Older people need to nurture the next generation, and younger people need to be nurtured,” said Freedman, president of Encore.org, a nonprofit that offers mentoring opportunities for people over 50. “When people of different generations don’t have contact with each other, it creates negative stereotypes and contributes to loneliness and social isolation.”

Those who study the phenomenon say age segregation in the United States — so commonplace now, it can seem natural — arose only in the 20th century in response to disparate changes. Compulsory public education spawned an age-based grade structure. The launch of Social Security and Medicare gave employees in their mid-60s a financial cushion to leave the workplace. Improved health led to longer life spans, sparking a retirement housing boomlet.

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In the 19th century, pre-teens and young adults learned to read together in one-room schoolhouses, and it wasn’t unusual for three generations of a family to live under the same roof. The generations labored side by side on farms and assembly lines, and prayed together, too.

Today, real estate developers build micro apartments for young professionals and senior-only housing for retirees.

Lasell Village resident Mike Simon, 93, listened to students present their findings during a class at Lasell College.
Lasell Village resident Mike Simon, 93, listened to students present their findings during a class at Lasell College. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Gray hair is a rarity in the youth-crazed world of high-tech startups.

And some houses of worship try to keep young people engaged by funneling them to youth services.

Freedman, whose recent book “How to Live Forever” calls for a new push to connect the generations, noted that 2019 will be the first year more Americans will be over 60 than under 18. Many baby boomers are reaching retirement age healthier and with more diverse work experience than past generations. Shunting them to the sidelines makes little sense, he said, at a time when many organizations clamor for employees, coaches, and volunteers.

The campaign for age integration is taking many forms.

Encore.org launched Generation to Generation, an effort to mobilize 1 million adults over 50 to mentor young people through groups like Strive for College and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. An earlier Encore program, Experience Corps, now run by AARP, dispatches seniors to tutor students at high-need elementary schools in 20 cities, including Boston.

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Officials in some Massachusetts towns have built public schools next to senior centers where students can perform concerts and rehearse plays.

At Plymouth’s Council on Aging, seniors read books and watch documentaries with high-school and middle-school students and discuss what they’ve learned. Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets come to a prom, called “Putting on the Ritz,” at the town’s Center for Active Living, where they serve food and dance with seniors.

“The kids see that seniors aren’t old farts,” said Conni DiLego, the Plymouth acting director of elder affairs. “And seniors see there are a lot of good kids out there.”

Some businesses are also exploring cross-generational ventures. Boston startup Nesterly, launched in 2016, has developed an online platform for “intergenerational home sharing.” It pairs older empty nesters and their spare bedrooms with graduate students who are looking for affordable rents and willing to help their hosts with household chores.

“The hosts are giving back and being part of the community,” said Nesterly founder Noelle Marcus, “and the guests are excited to be living with someone of another generation.”

Bringing older and younger people together is central to the mission of Lasell Village, the nation’s only senior community where residents are required to fulfill course requirements. Its residents include retired teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers.

“People who select into Lasell Village are very curious, and they want to continue to learn and contribute,” said Anne Doyle, president of Lasell Village and a vice president at Lasell College, a small liberal arts school. “These are people jazzed about working with undergraduates.”

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Lasell’s campus, tucked away in Newton’s leafy Auburndale neighborhood, also houses a day care and preschool, prompting Doyle to boast it hosts people from ages 1 to 100.

In the criminal justice class, the mixing of age groups was part of the fun.

While the students, some of them aspiring forensic pathologists, were learning how to evaluate evidence and prepare autopsy and toxicology reports, the residents — who devised the crime scenario and doubled as witnesses — relished their roles.

Ellie Ramsey, the village resident who portrayed the murderer, made a dramatic confession after the Lasell students presented incontrovertible evidence.

“He wasn’t a nice guy,” Ramsey said of the victim, “so I decided to do him in. I put a knife in my knitting bag. I ordered some marijuana to distract him, and when he turned around. . . .” She made a clicking sound to describe the stabbing.

“I was careful to not get blood all over me,” she added.

Rosa Gomez, a 21-year-old Lasell junior who’s majoring in criminal justice, said working with the villagers was an “amazing” experience for her.

“They ask so many good questions,” she said.

Lis Drake, one of the Lasell Village residents who attended the class, said the back-and-forth with undergrads is typically relaxed and fruitful. One reason, she said, may be because the age gap is wide enough to neutralize any tensions.

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“They see us as being from their grandparents’ generation, rather than their parents’,” she said.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.