Kids and Seniors find mutual gain in sharing experiences

ADDISON COUNTY — According to a study conducted by the United Nations Population Fund, almost one in 10 people on Earth are over the age of 60. But by 2050, that will jump to one in five.
Many of those older adults are staying young at heart — and helping mold the youngest generation — by providing more and more childcare for grandchildren and by volunteering for programs that bring them into contact with the children in the community.
Research shows that seniors are stepping in as childcare providers for families where both parents are in the workforce. With more women waiting later to give birth, grandparents are increasingly finding themselves around retirement age when grandchildren are born and therefore with time to donate to their grandchildren. While this may be a convenient or even necessary choice for a family to help offset rising costs of living and childcare rates, it could be mutually beneficial for the child as well as the senior.
A grandparent or senior can share wisdom and wide experiences of the world with a child. And children have lessons to teach their elder caregivers as well. Their wild imagination challenges seniors to continue experiencing the world in new and interesting ways, keeping their minds active at the critical time when memory begins to slip.
Younger generations can also help seniors engage with new technology and continue to learn from the changing social and physical landscapes. Connie Leach, director of marketing at Eastview in Middlebury, says that the computer program Skype has become a popular tool for residents of the retirement community to use to engage with family members regardless of where they live.
“Even if they aren’t capable of engaging completely, people enjoy being able to talk to their relatives, watch kids run and play in the background, and feel like they are a real part of the family still,” Leach says. Skype and other audiovisual communication tools are great for seniors who don’t hear very well and take a few minutes to respond, she says. It takes away the immediacy of the telephone and allows for a little more processing time, which often works well for seniors.
The best thing about Skype for seniors is that it helps maintain open and easy lines of communication, Leach says, which is very important for many seniors.
Many children today are exposed to technological gadgets and tools almost from birth, so by the time they are toddlers they are able to navigate a smart phone or play a computer game. In a relationship with a grandparent or senior, those young children learn how to communicate these skills to older generations.
Seniors can therefore use children as a porthole into the ever-changing technological landscape, and pick up technological tools and skills that they feel are appropriate to them. Even if they may not fully adopt the changes themselves, they can monitor them through a relationship with a child who will continue to engage with new technology every day.
Despite the upsides, seniors do still need their own space. Research supported by the National Institute on Aging in 2011 showed that grandparents who lived with their grandchildren and were responsible for their primary care were more likely to be depressed or have health problems than were their peers who enjoyed time with their grandchildren in limited doses.
The stress and physical demands of raising children can be multiplied for seniors who are dealing with the effects of aging and trying to slow down, the study said.
The best-case scenario? To have regular and limited interaction between children and seniors, whether between grandkids and grandparents or other children in the community with seniors living around them.
Programs that bring children and seniors together through schools, nursing homes, religious groups and volunteer organizations have been around for decades. In Addison County, many of the volunteers working to support the community have retired from their careers and are looking for opportunities to engage and stay active.
Several local schools including Mary Hogan Elementary, Bridport Central, Salisbury Community and Shoreham Elementary run a program called Everybody Wins that connects youngsters with volunteer reading buddies who help them learn how to read and love books. The volunteers can be any age and are sometimes high school or college students, parents or other adults, but they are very often seniors who have some extra time and want to connect with area kids.
“In a world where so many young families are transient, a lot of children don’t live near their grandparents,” says Angela Landis, Everybody Wins program director at Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury. “One of the wonderful things about the relationships where students are paired with an elderly mentor is that they get the perspective from a different generation than they may have regular access to.”
Landis says that while the purpose of the program is to “build friendships based around literacy,” added benefits are the positive effects that young people have on mentors.
A quick Internet search yields many other programs outside this area that help connect kids and seniors. Seniors and Kids Intergenerational Programs, or SKIP, is an organization based in Ontario that helps facilitate intergenerational relationships through school visitation, mentoring programs and music enrichment.
In a daycare facility called ONEgeneration located outside of Los Angeles, toddlers and senior citizens spend their days together participating in activities and enriching each other’s lives. Since the early 1990s, intergenerational programs like this have worked to embrace both healthy aging and child development under one roof.
At ONEgeneration, adult interaction with children is optional and mixed activities are chosen carefully given mutual interest — planting seeds, painting and reading are a few examples. Kids and seniors refer to each other as “neighbor” here, helping encourage connectedness and break down the barrier between generations.
According to a New York Times article on the subject, research has shown that children enrolled in intergenerational daycare programs are more patient, more empathetic and better mannered and exhibit more self control than their peers. For seniors, having regular contact with children “can be a powerful antidote to depression and disability.”
“Adopt a Grandfriend” programs are also popular throughout schools, community groups and social media networks around the country. Youth are paired with seniors in their community and connect to share stories, exchange letters, perform music and theater, or simply learn from each other’s experiences.
Eastview in Middlebury is fostering a relationship with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center to connect students interested in medicine and geriatrics with residents at Eastview. The program hopes to provide a mutual benefit to both the students through hands-on experience, as well as members of the Eastview community, who will benefit from the innovative spirit of the students.
In short, despite the years that separate the young from the old, many positive lessons as well as good, old-fashioned, healthy fun can come out of a relationship between kids and seniors.

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