Next month, I’m organizing a group of neighbors to send Valentine’s Day cards to senior citizens in Arlington. I asked our town’s Council on Aging for a list of people who’d love to get mail, and I’ll host a card-writing party for parents and kids.
It seemed like a hands-on way to engage families in something that can feel confusing and awkward: interacting with the elderly. Sometimes it’s even hard finding common ground with your own grandparents, let alone trying to volunteer to help strangers. Last year, I organized groups of kids to visit a local senior center; there were some rewarding moments, but there was also an uneasy ice-breaker time when kids sort of stood against the wall, not knowing what to do, while the adults looked at them, confused. Eventually the kids started a game of catch with beach balls (and even painted a few people’s nails!), but it was tough to get going.
But finding ways for kids to interact with senior citizens is so important. They can learn so much. They can recognize that not everyone is a kid (for the longest time, my third-grader thought that 18 was “old”); that there are real people out there who lived through historic events that they might only hear about in school; and that sometimes gifts don’t come in packages, they simply exist as moments in time. In turn, older people get a welcome respite from a schedule that might become monotonous. They can joke around. They can tell stories about their own lives, getting to relive important moments and remembering who they were when they were young. I’ll never forget the dementia patient I sat with last year who clearly had no grasp on the year or even his own name. But when I asked him about his career, his eyes twinkled and he sat up straighter. He was a renowned psychiatrist who had practiced for 50 years, and he remembered his patients in meticulous detail. (Who needs HIPAA?) For a few moments, he was in the prime of his life once again.
I talked to Lynda Doctoroff Bussgang, director of the Adam and Matan Adelson Multigenerational Program at Hebrew SeniorLife, about how to help kids engage with older adults. She had some great ideas:
Ask your child’s teachers to reach out to a senior care community to schedule a series of visits. Many intergenerational programs are born from a teacher and/or parent’s passion for connecting young and old. Support is needed to make the connections between institutions and help with logistics.
Help a student bring their own talents and passions to seniors. Pet visits, concerts, topical discussions and art projects are all wonderful ways for a student and senior to forge a one-on-one connection with one another.
Check in on an elderly neighbor regularly. Bring in the mail or garbage cans on a bad-weather day. Shovel the walkway or offer to go to the grocery store after a snow storm. (Or just pop in to say hello!)
Deliver flowers, cards or snacks to seniors in a community for older adults during vacation break or on a holiday.
Listen to the stories of family members or older adults in your community. For many seniors, an opportunity to share their former work experiences, family lore and memories of times long ago are validating and enriching.
Make a video of Shabbat blessings, Jewish songs or a holiday service to share with seniors who might be isolated from Jewish traditions and community.
Spend several weekend mornings visiting seniors in an assisted living community with your family. Ask resident care providers about participating in a program, helping with bingo or working on a collaborative art project. Often times, just having children participate in activities with seniors changes the energy and mood of the community for the whole day.
Bring a senior you know to temple with you or to another community service program.
Spend quality time with older adults in your own family. Support family conversation, games and other activities with grandparents and older friends, despite any preconceptions you might have about their ability to engage with your kids. Even seniors with memory loss or other physical and cognitive impairments will benefit greatly from time with younger people.
Encourage kids to teach seniors, and seniors to teach kids, from card games to magic tricks to lessons on an iPad. Everyone benefits from learning something new.
I’m hoping to make the card-writing activity a monthly event for my crew. If you have more ideas to add, I’d love to hear them!