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"WOW, YOU CAN REALLY DANCE"

Teenagers are using TikTok to bond with their grandparents

three screenshots of TikTk accounts where seniors are the stars.
Quartz/Screenshots
Not just for Gen Z.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

The account @its_j_dog, with 953,600 followers as of late February, is a typical popular TikTok page. It features memes with audio from other popular TikToks, or song excerpts made popular on the app. One of the account’s most-liked videos is from last month, showing j-dog—aka Jenny Krupa—eating lunch with her husband and lip syncing the words to an obscure Doja Cat song. It has 1.6 million likes and over 8 million views.

But unlike most TikTokers, Krupa is 88 years old. She lives on a farm near Edmonton, Alberta. “I’m 88,” her bio boasts, “and probably have more followers than you.”

Gen Zers, who are between the ages of 16 and 22, dominate TikTok. Even millennials can find themselves feeling too old for the app. But Krupa and a handful of other aging account-holders are rejecting the notion that new social media is only for the young. By poking fun at their age, making jokes about sex, drinking, and even death, they produce a kind of uncomfortable, yet strangely addictive humor. And the appeal shows in their numbers: These accounts, with names like @youwishiwasyourgranny and @grandadjoe1933, have tens and hundreds of thousands of followers.

There’s 81-year-old Jane Rickard, the star of the account @jebandjane. She has over 132,000 followers at the time of writing, and some of her most popular videos feature her recreating memes that talk about sex, or reading lyrics from a popular song with no knowledge of the actual beat.

 

Dolores Paolino, 86, is the main face of the account “Dolly the Dwarf,” @dolly_broadway. (She made the name after a trip to Disney World where she dressed up as Snow White; standing at just 4 feet 5 inches, her grandchildren said she should be one of the seven dwarves instead.) Paolino, who lives in South Philadelphia, has a party persona: A lot of her videos feature her drinking spiked seltzer or wine while dancing. “I like to post goofy things,” she says. “If I can make people happy and smile, I’m elated.”

At the time of writing, some 713,000 users follow Dolly as she throws off senior stereotypes—on a platform seemingly built to push older users away. “We’re not dumb, we don’t need to be put in a corner,” Paolino says. “I want to leave a mark before I go.”

Each of the accounts, in its own way, works to subvert our expectations of elderly life. But there’s something else that unites these videos: Behind every senior TikTok account I reached out to is a younger adult.

Dolly’s account was the first I reached out to. When I provided her with my email address, I got a response from her and her grandson, Julian Giacobbo, who is 17. (He’s the closest to Dolly of all her grandchildren, he boasts). They both jumped on the phone with me to talk about the account, which they started back in November 2019 after her Instagram account had already gained more than 2,000 followers.

Next I reached out to @its_j_dog; I found Jenny’s grandson Skylar Krupa on the other end of the line, who made the account for his grandmother in August. He’s 19, and lives with his dad in a home right by Jenny. By the time I got in touch with @jebandjane, it was less of a surprise that her grandson Jeb, 16, was running things behind the scenes.

There’s no guarantee that these seniors would have had any interest in the app by themselves, or come up with the content that makes them successful. But when I spoke with each grandchild/grandparent duo behind these accounts, I found genuine relationships between these older adults and the ones who love them.

Even before Skylar made Jenny’s account, he came over multiple times a day to check in on her and his grandfather. “Skylar helps me around the house,” she says. “When I used to have a garden, his older brother and him used to come help and weed.” Now, they can make videos together too.

The videos aren’t always just about quality time: Skylar is trying to monetize his TikTok by making videos that capitalize on existing trends on the app. “Some of the trend stuff [my grandmother] doesn’t understand,” he says. “I just film it and then I show her, and she thinks it’s funny later.” But Jenny says she doesn’t mind trying out whatever Skylar suggests—and she enjoys being something of a celebrity in her tiny town of 500 people.

Not that the fame has changed them. Jenny still spends a lot of time outside in her flowerbeds, or meeting her friends for coffee downtown. Jane collects all kinds of antiques, with a deep love of skulls she has scattered throughout the house. And while Dolly “loves to party,” she says she usually sticks to one drink at a time—not the several her videos suggest.

Together, they show that it’s possible for some social media to actually foster relationships—by bonding over goofy lip-syncs, dancing, or whatever else. While the videos they make can bring joy to hundreds of thousands of users worldwide, the adults making them get companionship of their family, and a way into understanding a world they’d likely never come across otherwise.

Looking for more in-depth coverage of Tik Tok? Sign up for a free trial of Quartz membership, and read our complete guide to the global rise of Tik Tok.

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