Gifts and Aging: A Two Way Street
Grandparents and grandchildren doing things together. What's the big deal? Well, the big deal is that it doesn't happen nearly as often as it did in previous generations. Blame (or credit) it on the parent generation's moving away from their parents' locale -- not infrequently to a foreign country -- because of job opportunities, the desire for a different lifestyle, having become attached to the area where they attended an institution for higher learning or where the Armed Services sent them. The grandparent's generation, too, is moving to points south or west in greater number than ever before. Add to this the sometimes emotional disruptions caused by divorce and subsequent blended family interrelationships. Whatever the reasons much change has been brought about in the structure and function of extended families.
In the early 1980's, projects began to bubble up to put unrelated senior adults and young persons in touch with one another. This happened most notably in the Northwest, Chicago, and California (here in Louisville a program linking children who were home alone with senior adults in a telephone relationship was started in 1987.) This concept was seen to benefit both age groups: those children having little or no contact with their elders -- thereby never being exposed to family history, a sense of continuity, the stories and wisdom of the elders -- and senior persons, who benefit from remaining active, mentally and physically. An additional reasoning, crass as it may sound, was to give the child a first hand understanding of the concerns of the elderly -- health, mobility, living conditions, finances -- since the young person would deal with them eventually, if not for a relative, at least in the political realm.
Since those early days, the concept and its implementation have grown by leaps and bounds, both locally and internationally. Locally this concept has segued into a highly successful program that gives help to grandparents who have the care of their grandchildren on a full time basis. The program is applicable to other caregivers as the Kentucky law now reads.
The concept of intergenerational programs is now taken for granted, and success stories fill many conference recapitulations and national organizational newsletters. But all is not sweetness and light. Intergenerational programs, whether putting together related or unrelated persons, deal with two sets of humans; probably from two different backgrounds, lifestyles, interests, outlooks on life, and expectations from life as well as changes in the culture itself between the time of the one generation and the other. And therein lies the rub.
These differences come into play in the matters of spirituality whether in one's private religious beliefs or in public worship. Two examples: among Unitarians who are of the senior age group, humanism was apparent as an outlook on life; among Roman Catholic elders the common attitude in religious matters was "me and God." These two anecdotal examples tend to fit in with cultural changes. Indeed, the changes in the public worship in the Roman Catholic churches brought about by the teachings of the Vatican II Council piggy-backed on similar changes in the world at large in the fields of philosophy and sociology. To give a more down to earth example, look at what our ease in transportation and communication, including what we glean from various media, have done in the field of religion. Youth and seniors view and assimilate these influences differently.
Here I want to broaden the scope of spirituality to include virtues and morals. If one's sense of right and wrong comes from a belief in a Supreme Being and one conducts one's life in accordance with that belief and the attendant teachings, I consider that to be one's spirituality. Others of no particular religious affiliation may also live by a sense of right and wrong according to one's own philosophy, as in humanism.
Intergenerational programs easily bring to light different sets of values; some differences are meaningful, some perhaps hurtful, and some are simply inconsequential. As an example, at an intergenerational gathering at an elementary school, a van of senior adults, some in wheel chairs, was greeted by fourth grade children. Respect for the elderly and help for the handicapped, a sense of welcoming to their "turf," and the sharing of the children's handiwork was reciprocated on the part of the elders by their entering into the planned activities, by their telling stories of bygone years, and by their acceptance of the children's lifestyle. Preparation was done ahead of time with both groups. The children were told about the lack of mobility and difficulty of hearing of some seniors. The seniors were told that seats in classrooms are not in rows, that boys may be wearing caps in the classroom, that there will be much moving around and little raising of hands to get the teacher's attention. Both groups accepted each other easily since there were no surprises. Potential off-putting incidentals had been dealt with; including, for instance, by what name the elders wished to be called since elders prefer some form of honorific address and many children are used to addressing elders by their first name. Basic values, especially respect and caring for one another, proved to be much in evidence. Furthermore, the encounter had a lasting effect on both groups. The concrete outcomes of the project were a video, a published book, and a quilt. Sometimes seeing things through the eyes of a child can lead one to a sense of a Higher Power. And to witness the interaction of the two groups, to see the affection and developing friendships, was, to my mind, to have seen God.
To transpose this situation into a church building might require similar preparation. Children's talking, squirming, and moving about might be upsetting to the senior population. And a lengthy service that is over the heads of the children will exacerbate the condition. That said, there is much that can benefit both ages in the realm of conducting one's life in a manner pleasing to one's God.
A Deepening Love Affair by Jane Marie Thibault leads me to explore the similarities and differences between the spirituality of the two groups. As we age we probably think more about our own ceasing-to-exist, our manner of death, and what, if anything, follows. That leads those of faith to explore their own relationship with a Supreme Being. But also as we age we tend to come to a sense of "the world will go on when I'm not here." Things we've owned, all the unnecessary creature comforts, what is commonly called "stuff" just doesn't matter as much any more. And as far as setting the world on fire, that part of our life diminishes. Our minds are not on a half dozen things at once. Our bodies may be giving us problems, but generally we're rather resigned to the fact that the body is going to deteriorate. Think of a child. He or she doesn't consider his or her own existence. He or she just is. He or she does not see the world as dependent on him or her. He or she may have lots of stuff, but I dare say it's the parents or others who have decided he/she wants/needs it all. There may be a favorite cuddly thing (and seniors could use one, too; think of the use of animals in nursing homes), but otherwise whatever is around will do as a thing to be examined or played with, and his or her attention is totally on that thing. His or her future and the world at large have not yet entered into the worry mode of his or her thoughts. These traits apply most directly to a young child. As the child grows older they are overridden by cares and concerns, needs and wants, and distractions and excuses as he or she begins packing the day with activities and planning for the future.
So what is similar between the spirituality of a very young child and the elderly? We hear stories occasionally of a very young child talking as though having a relationship with God. Be that as it may, the uncomplicated life style of the child gives him or her a togetherness with all that comes his or her way that can be likened to seeing God in all things; loving the creator of all things by appreciating, loving, relating to all with which he or she comes in contact. This mimics in the elderly the often seen attitude reflecting an awareness of a Supreme Being in their lives.
Both age groups are, or become, dependent on others so characteristics of the caregiver of necessity tend to fade into the background. Both see life differently than the middle generation, which is caught up in the workaday world, and, therefore, they have more time to "smell the roses." The young gradually lose this while the elderly progress into a more simple life style; integrating a life that is not concerned with the thousand distractions and worries that beset the in-between generations. (A caveat: the young generation is remaining young less long.)
So how does one form as intergenerational program?
Intergenerational programs can be anything one's imagination can come up with. The basic criteria would be: 1) an activity appealing and appropriate to both ages; 2) sufficient oversight and encouragement by a third party to give the project a sound foundation; 3) and most important, having the individuals come to know each other well enough to engender a real interest in one another and an enthusiasm for whatever they are doing -- dancing, singing, planting a garden, playing board games, jigsaw puzzles, checkers, chess, marbles, computer games, sewing, knitting, crocheting, tatting, cooking, decorating cookies, fishing, flying a kite, telling stories to each other, reading to each other. Some of these are group activities, some more one on one. In either case, the doing must be mutual and the activities must be shared.
Not to be ignored is the togetherness of simply talking with each other. The young are fascinated by true life stories of pre-computer, pre-TV, pre-airtravel times; such as stories about the earliest cars and home delivery of milk, bread, and ice. The changes in life style in a senior person's life span is tremendous and the rate of change is phenomenal.
All projects must be mutually beneficial. Visiting a nursing home may turn off a child unless the child feels some satisfaction from the visit. Having the child bring a gift--something of his or her own or something she or he has made--can be the trigger to the child's sense of fulfillment and togetherness with an elder.
I remember accompanying a class of young students to a nursing home and one child was adamant that she was not going into the resident's room. We talked to her about the patient's looks, the medicinal odor, why the patient was in bed, everything that occurred to us. Nothing would appease her. Finally she told us that her mother had told her never to talk to strangers! Truth to tell, visiting a nursing home is not as intergenerational program because there is no ongoing activity, but the example points up some of the unexpected obstacles that crop up.
On a personal level during the writing of this paper, I was asked to share with a group of second, third, and fourth grade children the changes brought about by the Vatican II Council. The children listened attentively and asked meaningful questions. It was a learning experience on both sides and very enjoyable.
Shortly after I began work as an Intergenerational Consultant, a video of an intergenerational choral group came to my attention. It led to my involvement in an intergenerational concert put on by the Louisville Chorus in Louisville, Kentucky. The original music and words were geared toward the inclusion of the multi-generations in the Chorus. Once again preparation was essential. Aside from the obvious learning to sing together, the children met several times with the regular members of the Chorus to come to know one another, to eat together, to share stories about themselves, to develop a real interest in the other generation. Friendships developed and the Chorus became one entity, not two halves. The program was a winner!
In conclusion, intergenerational programs promote understanding, caring, and respect between the senior adult and the young person, and these are the greatest gifts one can have or bestow on another.
Mary Cheap, M.S., is retired as an Intergenerational Consultant in Community Development. She is active in liturgy and catechesis with the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, as well as being active with her 7 children and 12 grandchildren.
Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.