[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono"][/caption] As a mother, there are few moments I treasure more than seeing those who raised me and my husband interact with my own children. My girls are fortunate to have three, relatively young, and loving grandparents who live close by and watch them each week. My parents and mother-in-law are still vibrant, work full time jobs and revel in the latter half of their lives and spoiling their grandchildren. They are hardly what anyone would label senior, and, for the record, I say this because it’s true, not just because I know that all of them will read this post… Nowadays, the definition of “older adults” or “senior citizens” has changed significantly. Though the average age of first-time motherhood has been steadily climbing for decades (as of 2006 it was 25 compared to 21 in 1970) people also live longer and work longer, causing an ever-widening gap between the very old and the very young. Many older adults are bound to nursing homes or assisted living facilities, sometimes unable to leave without escorts. Also, more and more often they are great grandparents who all too easily become forgotten entities. Because of this, many young children are denied exposure to older adults and as a result lose out on a valuable lesson in compassion, acceptance and the similarities between the beginning and the end of life. Bridging the Generational Gap: The Foster Grandparent Program In 1965, the gap between old and young was already being recognized through the establishment of the Foster Grandparent Program as a result of the Older Americans Act of 1965. The program, which still exists, is locally directed and sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The purpose of the Foster Grandparent Program was to help low-income seniors to “establish meaningful relationships with children in need” (Corporation for National & Community Service, 2011). In other words, foster grandparents serve an important role in the life of children who may not have the benefit of grandparents or older adults in their lives. The Foster Grandparent Program is only one of many similar intergenerational platforms that endeavor to create reciprocal relationships between the very old and very young. Programs like this recognize that there are important similarities between the beginning and the end of life. Young children, like older adults, yearn to feel understood. Both groups are also going through significant developmental changes. Finally, the need for low-stakes companionship is high in both groups. Young children, yearning for autonomy, want to break away from adults constantly telling them what to do. Older adults, struggling to hold on to their autonomy, appreciate the simplicity of a relationship with a young child who relishes in their attention, does not feel obligated to see them and is, in fact, excited by their presence each week. Intergenerational Relationships and Emotional Intelligence: A Life Lesson According to Davidson & Boals-Gilbert (2010), “Positive intergenerational contact may be an especially important facet for supporting mental health, including emotional, social, and spiritual growth” (25). In early childhood education, the focus on building emotional intelligence and other social skills trumps much of the academic work we see in the latter grades. Therefore, the presence of an older adult or the integration of a program that supports intergenerational relationship building can have a huge bearing on the wellbeing and development of both groups. Early childhood teachers are therefore posed at the front lines of this development. By allowing older adults into the classroom and developing lesson plans that foster this emotional growth, early childhood educators are opening the doors to more than one benefit for their students. Similarly, caregivers for older adults, whether they are family or professional, can benefit from this as well. By allowing relationships to form, getting out of the boring and isolating routine of the senior residence, and feeling useful in the lives of others, older adults are able to regain self-esteem. Finally, the contact between these generations will establish older adults as people to young children and perhaps their families as well. They will be less “scary” and seen as a resource, which is an important, though often-forgotten, component of diversity education. Building Intergenerational Relationships: Find the Time It’s clear that taking the time to build intergenerational relationships among young children and older adults is an important aspect of early childhood education as well as character building. For teachers interested in discovering ways to do this in their classroom, a great first step is to contact your local branch of the Foster Grandparent Program. In addition, in Part II of this series, I will provide you a list of activities to use in the classroom that will appeal to both the young and the young at heart. Sources: Davidson, S.R. & Boals-Gilbert, B. (2010). What age gap? Building intergenerational relationships. Dimensions of Early Childhood. 38(2): 23-29. Corporation for National & Community Service (2011). National service timeline. Retrieved from http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/role_impact/history_timeline.asp
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