Note about the author: A mother to six children, the author watched her great-grandmother live with dementia throughout her childhood and now cares for a grandmother with dementia.
My children stood clustered behind me, wary and a little frightened. They had been given strict instructions to stay where they were and not to ask to go any further. Their trembling voices gave a good effort to the off-key notes of “Happy Birthday,” but it just wasn’t the same.
“Thank you!” my grandmother called from across the driveway. She stood with my grandfather and swung her arms awkwardly. Arms that normally would be busy giving hugs. “Love you guys!”
This scenario, familiar to many of us now, took place in March of 2020. There was so much we didn’t know, and our desire to keep our loved ones safe, especially our elderly, was a top priority. My children found themselves suddenly shy and uncertain around great-grandparents with whom they had a previously robust relationship. With the weeks turning into months and young memories fading, would the cost outweigh the gain of these measures?
The past eighteen months have seen a lot of changes to life as we knew it. Chief among them have been to our relationships. We were separated by a desire to keep each other safe and well—but still separated.
Some of the greatest to suffer have been our elderly, particularly those suffering from memory loss. Isolation is often a struggle for our older generations. Coupled with health safety measures, lack of technological skill, and inability to travel, our society as a whole is suffering from a lack of intergenerational relationships.
We need our seniors as much as they need us.
We can combat this growing chasm by teaching our children to value and seek out relationships with people older than themselves. By familiarizing our youngsters with our oldest generation’s unique circumstances and gifts, we reflect a belief that all life is precious—whether senior grandparents, family, neighbors, or community members. By prioritizing those relationships ourselves, we set an example of love, care, and respect that benefits our communities at large.
Why our children need relationships with the elderly
“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation.” – Margaret Mead
Studies across the globe conclusively demonstrate immense benefits to children and elderly people who are engaged in consistent activities together.
In 2016, The Atlantic reported, “Numerous studies have linked social interaction with decreased loneliness, delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease and death in elders. Socializing across generations has also been shown to increase the amount of smiling and conversation among older adults, according to one Japanese study from 2013.”
These benefits aren’t just for our senior citizens. According to Stanford News, “Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor who led the report and is the director of the Stanford Center for Longevity, said, ‘Contrary to widespread beliefs that older populations consume resources that would otherwise go to youth, there is growing reason to think that older people may be just the resource children need.’”
Now, the question is how to rekindle those relationships. After a year or more with only Zoom calls and visits behind glass or across the driveway, how can we help our children reintegrate with our elderly?
How do we address the confusing situation of dementia, a growing presence in our society? Many families are choosing to bring senior family members home rather than prolong their isolation in care facilities. How do we help our children to not only adjust, but also cherish these opportunities?
One of the easiest and most effective tools is books!
Books offer a positive way to reinforce these relationships while strengthening our own connection with our children. Simple stories coupled with memorable illustrations plant positive impressions, open the door for meaningful conversations, and start the ball rolling for thought development. Here are some of my family’s favorites on various topics such as dementia, infirmity due to aging, honoring our elders, loneliness, respect for a life different from our own, or joy in such connections: