The Importance of Senior Interaction with Children

In March 2016, an image of a grandfather taken by one of his grandchildren over a dinner of burgers spread with fervor across the Internet. The granddaughter, one of six grandchildren, was the only one to show up to a family dinner that “Papaw” had made for seven.

Responses to the photograph were raucous, ranging from offers to eat with the largely abandoned older gentleman, to admonishment for the five grandchildren who didn’t show up. But, ultimately, the picture shared a lesson: the elderly are in fierce need of connection with the young, and they badly want to make these connections.

Nina Chen of the University of Missouri summarizes the larger problem in play:

Today's children and older people have limited opportunities for meaningful interaction in a country increasingly segregated by age and marked by long distance grandparents and grandchildren. The generations are divided emotionally, physically, and socially, while missing exciting opportunities to learn and share. This may result in growing tensions if the young don't understand the old and the old fear the young.

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New Programs For Better Interaction

Programs like Brantford, Ontario’s SKiP and Jasper County’s Building Bridges seek to help the house-bound and frail elderly from reaching the same lamentable fate as “Papaw.” Through partnerships with schools, community centers, and senior care agencies, these gaps in interaction between the young and the elderly are starting to close.

These programs bring preschool and elementary students into regularly supervised contact with the oldest members of their community, aiming to provide benefits for each group. And, indeed, both the visiting students and the visited seniors are thriving under these conditions.

The Grace Living Center in Oklahoma, for example, is a co-located facility where preschoolers and kindergartners go to school in a shared space with an assisted living facility. In addition to the regular developmental work that these young students do each day, they regularly participate in activities like “Book Buddies,” where kindergartners spend 30 minute increments trading off reading responsibilities with their elderly book buddy.

In addition to helping kindergartners gain practice and confidence in their reading abilities, it fulfills their older buddies to know they’re fulfilling an important purpose.  "I know how important it is to learn to read, and if I can read to them now, that's a big help down the line," says GLC resident Charlie Lampson.

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Interaction for Every Situation

Even for seniors who aren’t facility bound, the benefits of regular interaction with children are many and well-documented. For children, programs like SKiP have demonstrated an increase in character development and caring; further, students build confidence as they learn to regularly interact with adults they don’t yet know. SKiP program participants have shown marked interest in learning about the life stories and experiences of their newfound older friends, giving them new ways to frame the world in which they live.

The time shared with their younger counterparts has proven as beneficial for the elderly participating in these initiatives. While one student voiced with pride his ability to teach his older friend about “the new technology we have,” the upside of these interactions extends far beyond simple skill development. Programs like the one housed at the GLC and Building Bridges let senior citizens share their knowledge and meaningfully share it with the students they meet.

These experiences, framed as an opportunity to have an impact on future generations of leaders and citizens, instill a sense of purpose in these folks, many of them having been made to feel as though their best years were behind them.

Loneliness, helplessness, and boredom are feelings that can easily proliferate in the elderly, but a tearful admission from a SKiP participant that these visitors “give us all a reason for living” proves that these programs are worthwhile. The confidence that these interactions gives to students, also spreads to the elderly, as their value to the community is given an opportunity to grow and be seen.

As Nina Chen explained at the opening, the most powerful impact of programs that bring the elderly together with children, is a narrowing of the gap between generations. Programs that promote understanding of one another through regular interaction and story-sharing can help achieve this.

Whether the program you institute is as radical as a co-located facility, or as simple as instituting a “pen pal” program, these interactions matter. Students open their minds to the value their elders have to share, and seniors are renewed with a sense of purpose and responsibility to care for citizens-in-training. So, if you’re in search of a spark in the elderly individuals you work with, consider interactions with the young to bring out the young at heart.

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