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Is it possible to have a friend 60 years older than you?

In today’s digital era where Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are the average millennial’s best friend, you’ll be hard pressed to find millennials connecting with their family members ‘offline’.

As millennials ourselves, we know how hard it is to feel and be close with our parents, much less our grandparents. And as our folks age, we do too. We start living our own lives and they start to lose touch with our generation. The many commitments and distractions don’t help either, and most of us are skeptical at the thought of bonding or being friends with our parents and grandparents.

However, a very unlikely pair has proved us wrong.

Meet 14-year-old student, Riddhi Rai and her best friend, 77-year-old retiree, Louise Bell.

When Riddhi Met Louise

Riddhi and Louise were complete strangers when they met at a social experiment Channel NewsAsia ran. Titled “Back to School”, this four-part series followed Riddhi, Louise, and 4 other pairs of strangers as they spent 10 weeks together.

Watch Episode 1 of Channel NewsAsia’s Back to School here

The experiment gave invaluable insights into 10 average Singaporeans’ lives and proved that despite the huge age gaps, friendship is possible.

While the episodes presented very interesting and endearing interactions between the Secondary school teenagers and their elderly partners, we wanted to find out more about what went on behind the scenes.

We spoke to Riddhi, Louise, and the production team. Here’s how they succeeded in making friends out of strangers who are generations apart.

Breaking The Barriers

Like most teens, Riddhi has no clear direction in life yet. She doesn’t fit in with peers in her school either, and prefers her world of fan fiction and indie music.

As for ex-headhunter Louise, most of her time is spent on church activities and picking up different interests like crochet (to help with her Parkinson’s) and acro-aerobics (to keep herself fit).

Naturally, it took a bit of time to warm up to each other over the palpable age barrier.

“She was shy, tall, and thin,” Louise recalled, “she reminded me of myself when I was younger, and I knew that I’ll need to be patient if I want her to open up.”

Similarly, Riddhi felt nervous and a little bit awkward to be meeting someone she knew nothing about.

Then, things got a lot easier when the pair found out that they’re both bookworms.

Speaking to Louise over the phone, I could picture Louise smiling as she shared a fond memory of when they were getting to know each other, “Riddhi even brought me around her school library and we picked out books together.”

Becoming Friends

Despite the challenges in accommodating to each other’s needs, Riddhi and Louise grew to not only embrace, but help each other in their weaknesses.

In an Escape Room game, Riddhi went out of her way to lift Louise up as Louise was having a bit of trouble with her weak legs. It was there that Louise saw a different side of Riddhi: that she isn’t that shy after all.

As for Riddhi’s lack of confidence, Louise managed to break down the walls and got her to be more vocal about her inner thoughts and feelings.

As the pair did more activities together, producers saw how they started to inspire each other.

“There’s still a bit to work on and I really hope to help her be more confident about herself,” Louise shared about her wish for Riddhi.

More Than Just Companionship

Having set out to test the success of intergenerational friendship researches done in US and Japan, the producers were “quite apprehensive about whether a simple friendship could make a difference, but the results showed a definite improvement.”

Not just for Riddhi and Louise, but the seniors from the other pairs also showed significant improvements in fitness, memory and mood, while the teenagers got a massive boost in self-esteem and a better attitude towards life. The pairs also formed real friendships and saw the other generation in a significantly better light.

“She taught me to be more responsible and punctual,” Riddhi said. “(And) she opened up my eyes to how teenage girls today are like,” Louise added.

Now, besides writing stories, reading books, or going for piano lessons, Riddhi would hang out with Louise. And Louise is more than happy to spend quality time with Riddhi, “Riddhi would actually call me and ask me if she can spend the day with me. I’d cook for her and we’d just talk about anything under the sun as we ate.”

Best Friends Forever?

Now that the 10-week ‘project’ has ended, how do Riddhi and Louise see each other?

While Riddhi sees Louise as a good friend whom she can share problems with, Louise thinks of herself as Riddhi’s surrogate mother without the parental control, “I think Riddhi trusted me as an outsider, that’s why she shared her worries with me. It’s easier to share your problems to outsiders than to your own parents.”

What is the secret to their surprising bond?

“Listen, listen, and listen,” Louise emphasised, “seniors must take the first step to reach out, and don’t rush to impose or impart your knowledge until the young ones are ready to listen. Be patient.”

And for the young ones, “Don’t judge someone just because of their age,” Riddhi shared.

Watch the 10-week journey of Riddhi, Louise, and the other senior-teenager pairs on Channel NewsAsia’s Back to School here.

This story is written in collaboration with Channel NewsAsia.

Also read, These 14 Heartwarming Stories Show That A Mother’s Love Is Like No Other.