Do we ever get to a stage in life when role models are no longer important? Most all of us likely remember certain people in our lives who served as an example, taught us life lessons, or were just always there for us providing some sort of support or guidance. But what is it like to actually be a role model yourself? Did you know that most of you probably are -- but may not even realize it?

I recently had the opportunity to both observe and participate in the first annual Intergenerational Games held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center which brought together 4th grade students from Vista Square School and older adult athletes from the local Senior Olympics for a day of fun activity and interaction between generations using sport and physical activity as the link.

Over 50 student and senior partner teams spent the day together navigating their way through a variety of skill and knowledge challenges that included a basketball shoot, street hockey hit, tennis shot, soccer shoot, frisbee toss, LaCrosse shot, shot put (minus the heavy weighted ball), handball shot, field hockey kick, and bocce ball aim that was by all means more fun than competitive. Teams were also challenged at four knowledge stops along the way where seniors and students collaborated to best answer questions in the following categories: Olympic History, San Diego Sports, Health & Lifestyle, as well as Who's Who in Sports.

Katie Judd, a member of the County of San Diego's Aging & Independence Services (AIS) health promotion division and brainchild of the event, came up with this idea of linking seniors and students after remembering the role she played as a mentor in High School to elementary age children.

"Surprisingly, even at the young age of 16 and 17, I was a mentor and participated in a similar program where our volleyball team taught a group of elementary kids the basics of our sport," Katie shared. "So now in my work with older adults, I definitely saw the benefit of linking senior athletes and students together so kids can learn the importance and fun of being healthy all through life. And that you're never too old to play and have fun!"

Perhaps one of the most detrimental and challenging aspects of life is sterotyping. And the way younger people often view older adults is not typically in the most positive light.

"Kids usually have such a negative image or stereotype of older adults -- but it's usually just a matter of connecting and seeing seniors in a different way," Katie said. "Some don't even have an older adult or grandparent as a role model at all -- so this gave us the opportunity to shed a positive light on the issue by partnering kids and seniors together."

AIS, under the guidance of Pam Smith, the executive director, has really expanded its reach to not only serve seniors in the community with a variety of programs ranging from transportation, nutrition, security, and counseling in an effort to help them maintain their dignity and independence, but also recognizes their value in the community, too.

"Aging is changing," Pam Smith said at the opening ceremonies. "Seniors today are no longer retiring to the easy chair -- they want to keep active, stay healthy, and be involved, and this event is a great way to link generations together, diminish stereotyping, and learn from each other."

Part of Pam's vision to embrace and celebrate all aspects of aging can be seen in her staff appointment of the only intergenerational coordinator in the state of California. Not because it's just a nice thing to do -- but because she believes it's necessary. Generating positive awareness between generations can help facilitate a reduction in youth violence and foster improved family support.

Of course, one of the issues of great concern today is the lack of physical activity opportunities available to our youth in the school system. Budget cuts have pretty well eliminated exercise and activity from the curriculum which unfortunately has now created a whole new set of health problems among our young adults.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the number of of people with Diabetes 2 (known as Adult Onset Diabetes because it has historically been diagnosed exclusively in older people) has increased 70 percent among people in their 30s, and the increase among children has increased tenfold in the last five years! This is an epidemic and a definite healthcare crisis coming down the pike that will unlikely cost considerably more to treat than any savings being made by cutting these types of programs.

With one of the goals of this first annual Intergenerational Games being to increase mutual understanding and respect between generations and to promote healthy, active, life-long behaviors, it's evident that not only was this achieved, but more importantly, really needed.

"I've never played sports with my Granma before," said one student who became quite shy when I asked her name. "I didn't even think Granmas could do this stuff -- but they can and it's cool!"

Changing people's mindsets about what's possible, particularly with age, is one of the most positive things we can do in this society. Imagine the contributions that could be made if people believed they still had something to contribute, regardless of their age, and the effect it would have on others of all ages.

At this inaugural event, although scores were kept and medals awarded, everyone was a winner. During the award ceremony it was obvious this goal was reached as one student participant whispered to her new senior friend, "it doesn't matter if you win or lose...it's how you play the game!"

We're all role models and mentors in our own way -- as humans, we're always watching and learning from each other. So it's not only about how you play the game -- it's about playing it period, at every age.

Kelly Ferrin is a local gerontologist residing in Carlsbad. She is a certified AARP retirement specialist, motivational speaker, consultant, and author of a nationally released book titled, "What's Age Got To Do With It?" For column ideas contact her at (760)438-2126 or on the internet at ageangel@earthlink.net. Kelly Ferrin, Gerontologist Lifestyles (760)438-2126 web: http://www.ageangel.com

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