It can be tempting as a parent to want to keep your children protected from the idea of getting older as we may feel that it’s something they don’t need to know about yet. Realistically, children are amazingly resilient and can benefit greatly from spending time with older people, whether with relatives or in their local community. Here are a few ideas for getting them involved:
- Grandparents: The obvious choice when looking at older people in children’s lives is grandparents. Of course, ages can vary hugely – not all grandparents are elderly! But a strong relationship with grandparents is excellent for children to get an understanding of what life can be like for someone who is of a different generation to them. Grandparents often have a little more patience and perspective than parents: they have been there themselves, but are not embroiled in the everyday chaos of parenting so are able to offer time, love and experience. From grandparents, children gain confidantes, playmates and someone who really does think they are the best thing since sliced bread.
- Writing to a relative: When I was growing up, I used to write to my Great Nan, who lived “up North”. We wrote to each other for a good five years or more, where she would get to hear about the exciting games we’d been playing, what I liked watching on TV, and which boys I was currently interested in. In turn, I would read about the shops she’d pottered down to recently, what the neighbours were up to… it was hardly a correspondence you would expect to see published somewhere, but it was really important to me, and I think to her too.
- Helping elderly neighbours: there are lots of little jobs you can encourage your kids to help out with. Why not knock and see if they need a pet walking, or if you can help with some shopping, and encourage your child to do the same. This can be especially useful if the neighbour’s mobility is limited: perhaps they have had to get a stairlift fitted and you can help them fetch a few things from upstairs. As a child, we would often help our elderly neighbours bring in shopping from their car. We were rewarded with a sweet, which was of course a bonus, but we mainly did it because it felt like a nice thing to do. And feeling good about yourself in this way is a wonderful way of boosting self-esteem.
- Helping at a nursing home: This one may take a little more organising, but perhaps there’s something your child can help with at a local nursing home. It doesn’t have to be going in and working, perhaps they can bake some cakes, or make some cards at Christmas. If their school has a choir, could they speak to the teacher who runs it about going in to sing? My daughter’s school does this at a local nursing home, and the residents love it. The kids get an audience to practise in front of, and for many of the residents it’s a much-looked forward to event.
Any activities that involve caring for an elderly friend or relative can have a huge impact on both the wellbeing of the older person, and of the child themselves. It encourages patience, empathy and respect, gives them a link to the past and a sense of perspective about their own futures. It might not sound like something they would be overly keen on, but give it a go – you might be surprised!