The Founder of the “Over Dinners” talks to Nancy Griffin about his new venture with Chip Conley to bring the generations together at the dinner table. Senior living communities can adopt Generations Over Dinner’s turnkey program to combat ageism and social isolation.
Nancy: Tell us about your background.
Michael: There have been a lot of chapters. I started as an architect early in my career, focusing on creating spaces for people to gather. I developed a deep understanding that one of the things we yearn for more than anything else is human connection, and human connection happens in places where we gather—but there are not very many of them. I started an organization called Community Texture and the Repair Project in Portland, Oregon, with my partner at the time, Mark Lakeman. We were created all kinds of gathering places that weren't mitigated by transactions. They were free spaces for people to come together and connect.
I learned we didn’t need to build anything for people to come together, because we have this thing called the dinner table. We've forgotten how to gather around the dinner table and have meaningful conversation. I realized that I didn't have to be an architect in the traditional sense, that I could focus on the dinner table and reinvigorate it. This culture needs connection; our civic fabric is torn, tattered, and divided. The dinner table brings us back together.
Nancy: Tell us about Death Over Dinner. How did you come up with the idea?
Michael: First I’ll tell you what it is and then how it came together. Death Over Dinner is a global movement that started 10 years ago when we put out an invitation supported by a bunch of great materials. The invitation was we want you to talk about end of life, this taboo topic of death and grief: What it means to get a life limiting diagnosis; what it means to lose somebody; what it means to face our own mortality. This very simple platform became a global phenomenon. About a million people have had Death Over Dinners around the world in the last 10 years.
The way it came together was I started to focus on the dinner table and do dinners on different topics. It was about how to get people to the table to share food and laughter, and tell their stories. To share the human experience. Then I realized that it's a great place for specific conversations with a framework. So I started to host dinners all over the world on a variety of hard-hitting topics—Why do we fight and can we end war? Can we end genocide? What about the gender gap?
I was having these conversations with extraordinary leaders around the world, working with the Obama Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the World Economic Forum. What we found is that whether people are from the right, from the left, from the middle, and with whatever political identity, if you open a bottle of wine and break bread; if you created a space for open conversation at the dinner table, a lot things that divide us tend to go away. I realized we were onto something.
I wanted to move from bringing together presidents and Nobel Prize winners to including all kinds of folks and create something that was democratized for everyone. So we created Death Over Dinner almost like a board game. You can pick it up and use it at your table and you're going to have meaningful, potentially transformative conversations.
Nancy: And it probably took you in a direction that you didn't expect. I mean you've been at the forefront of the “death wellness movement.” What is it that you hope to accomplish?
Michael: The first thing we hoped to accomplish was to increase the literacy around end of life. We don't talk today about our mortality in our culture, not even in places of worship, so going back to the roots of our religions and traditions and talking about facing our mortality should be central.
We have over medicalized death and removed it from our experience. People used to have a much more visceral experience of losing the people around them. When we don't encounter death and talk about, we are more anxious and therefore don't create good plans for end of life. If we don't share our thoughts, those around us don't know how to take care of us or fulfill our wishes. And when we do die, they don't know how to know honor us, which is a very important part of grieving. So, let's break the taboo. Let's give people a beautiful experience to talk about this thing that defines us all.
I didn't know that I would be the “death guy” but it's an honor to hold these conversations with people all over the world. It's been a pretty amazing 10 years.
Nancy: For the senior living industry, I'm hoping that this whole idea of death wellness will come more to the forefront because I think it's so intricately tied with ageism. If we are afraid of aging, we are afraid of death. It's sort of the same thing, right?
Michael: Absolutely. What we would assume is those closest to death are more afraid of talking about it. That is a cultural assumption, but it's not true as a generalization. Those that are closer to death tend to be more willing to talk about it. They're talking about it, they're thinking about it. My mom is in a senior living community and people are dying all around them. Death is like regular news and they have a healthy relationship with it. We have to stop assuming that people don't want to have this conversation and start honoring them with the opportunity.
Nancy: You are the experts in conversation and Chip Conley is the modern elder, so tell us about your new collaboration, Generations Over Dinner.
Michael: I knew I wanted to spend time thinking about something other than death. You can stay in the temple, as they say, for too long. I will always be doing work in the end-of-life space. It's sacred to me. But I was thinking to myself, who do I admire? Who would I want to collaborate with? Who would potentially be a great mentor? The only person who came to mind was Chip Conley. About a year before, Chip had asked me to be a guest faculty member at the Modern Elder Academy. MEA has campuses, but they can't accommodate the whole world, so I said to Chip, let's take some of your extraordinary ideas and figure out a way that people around the world can participate for free.
Chip and I started taking long walks and having conversations with leaders, including the founder of Encore, Mark Freedman, and Martha Deevy and Laura Carstensen from Stanford Center on Longevity. We created this incredible think tank of leaders in the aging space and came up with this idea: How do we combat or alleviate ageism? It became clear we don't really want to talk about ageism for this project. We just want to create a world where generations, the older and the younger, come together to share wisdom and life lessons.
We have been in isolation for the last three years, and as a culture for a very long time. Why don't we break through that isolation and give everyone an antidote. So come together and invite as many different generations as possible to the dinner table. And when we formulate it as a challenge, “the generations challenge,” we realize that people are immediately going to think to themselves—Do I know somebody who is in their 60s, 70s, 80s 90s, maybe even hundreds? Do I know somebody who's 20s, 30s, 40s well enough to invite to dinner? Is my life diverse? Why or why not? When you put a great deal of age diversity together and ask important questions, it is magic. It is really profound.
Nancy: Talk to us about the types of conversations that you hope the table will have.
Michael: We take the guesswork out of that. Generations Over Dinner is more than just an invitation, it's the framework you need for the experience. We've created nine dinner scripts to choose your own adventure. The three primary topics are love and relationships, purpose, and the future. Each of those topics has three different scripts with a subtopic. For example, in “purpose,” you can talk about wisdom, or you can talk about money—unfortunately money is tied to purpose in our culture, so it is a very rich topic to dive into, pun intended.
You follow the script when you sit down at the table. It starts with honoring a generational ancestor, somebody who has died (taking a cue from Death Over Dinner), which is a powerful thing to do with multiple generations. Then it goes into questions that are based on the specific topic you chose. Those questions do not lead to a debate on political issues of the day, but instead ask you to share your deepest gift, your experience and the stories that made you who you are.
When you have an 80-year-old sharing with a 17-year-old, and a 17-year-old sharing with an 80-year-old, you experience hope for the future. It’s hard not to be down these days, and the future is uncertain. But when you see a generational connection, that whole ocean of time opens up in front of you and you get a sense that we can make this work.
Nancy: Senior living communities could really jump on this. How can they participate?
Michael: Senior living communities love programs. They need to keep people engaged, curious and active. The nice thing about this program is it's fully baked. It’s turnkey, and has that quality we're always looking for—it's free!
We can also give communities their own secure platform where they can invite residents and their kids, grandkids, friends, etc. It offers new connections and a whole lot of deep engagement.
Nancy: This is going to be powerful for the senior living industry listeners out there. Michael, tell us something personal about yourself.
Michael: I walked a marathon this May in Idaho, which was a transformative experience. And, I'm currently training for another walking marathon that takes place in Hawaii in December.
Get on board with Generations Over Dinner! Thank you!
Michael and Chip will be leading the workshop Love, Death and Human Connection at Modern Elder Academy October 23rd through 30th.
Listen to Michael's Glowing Older podcast.