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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

New England Regional

Renewing Ancient Bonds

Children and elders learn from each other.

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Newton grandfather Mark Yesley '59 may have helped some preschoolers at the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center in Boston learn to play chess, but the lessons he took home from the kids were far more personal. "It had never occurred to me to do that kind of work. I never thought I could deal with young kids," says Yesley, 63, explaining that his wife did more of the child-rearing in their home. "I was the only guy in the whole school, so everyone wanted me in their classrooms. It was kind of nice. It also made me understand my own grandchildren a lot more, and have more patience." He has since moved on to other volunteer jobs teaching children.

The center's intergenerational program (located at Temple Israel) offers retiree Nancy Wheeler not only the chance to be nearer her own grandson, who attends, but to spend relaxed time with other kids: time she didn't always have as a working mother of three. "I was a nurse [dealing] with adults for 40 years, which was very stressful," says Wheeler, 67. "Being a grandmother is different. I don't have to clean the house, or do any cooking, or other chores, which is what a working mom does. Now I don't have to do anything but play with kids. It's quite amazing." Three-year-old Jessica Landon told her parents that Wheeler "was the best student teacher in the school," a testament to how integrated the older volunteers are, says her father, Bruce Landon, M.S.C. '97, M.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School. The volunteers are positive role models for aging, he says, and Jessica gets more individualized attention from a grandmotherly (or grandfatherly) figure, which is particularly welcome because her own grandparents live in New Jersey.

"Everybody gains," says Helen G. Cohen, the center's executive director. For the past seven years, elders ranging in age from 62 to 89 have volunteered in classrooms there, often staying for years and working almost as co-teachers. A Brandeis University professor does art projects with the children, while other elders cook, play games, or, in the case of one Russian immigrant, subtly teach children about foreign cultures. Training is the key to creating a successful program, says Cohen, so teachers know how to best use the often untapped skills, resources, and emotional wisdom of older people, and so volunteers feel free to develop close relationships in class. "We don't want them just washing down the tables, doing errands, or getting the lunch ready," Cohen says. "We want them to be a part of the life here." Yesley is a perfect example. "It had never even occurred to us to introduce the kids to chess," she says. "But he just brought in his chess set and did it. The volunteers help us see outside of the box. They're not caught up in the emotional day-to-day haggling, as parents can be. And we're so tied into wanting our children to be the best they can be, but the volunteers are beyond that. They can accept the children for who they are, and teach them new things. Kids sense that. That's why the relationships work."

To some people, intergenerational programming may sound like a nice, but nebulous, concept: a soft-serve antidote to the fractured American family. Indeed, hard data on the subject are not easy to find. But across the country, a strong cadre of clinicians, teachers, academics, and elders is focused on promoting connections between young and old (see "Intergenerational Information"). Intergenerational curricula, arts, and mentoring are widespread in Miami, and there is the nationally recognized Elder Share the Arts program in Brooklyn, New York. Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition, serves as a clearinghouse for information on these issues.

Several colleges and universities have academic departments focused on intergenerational studies, including Worcester State College's Intergenerational Urban Institute. Celebrating its seventh year, the institute offers a certificate program in intergenerational study and community service, as well as arts initiatives, youth mentoring programs, and English tutorials for older immigrants. A program that studies Worcester's neighborhoods recently began collecting oral histories. The social bonds have frayed, says the institute's executive director, professor of urban studies Maureen E. Power, Ph.D., M.S.W. "[We see] more family violence, more divorce, more single parents, more kids in need of support," she says. "We've got this great resource of older people who are mobile, live longer, and have great gifts to contribute. We have found that this type of programming really works to meet social needs."

The city of Newton, Massachusetts, recently hired geriatric clinician and consultant Pamela Braverman Schmidt, who worked at the former Stride Rite Intergenerational Center in Cambridge, to help develop intergenerational programs at its senior center and throughout the city. In this age of mobility and telecommunications, explains Braverman Schmidt, children often don't have consistent, face-to-face contact with elders, even within their own families. Such connections, however, have an impact on an individual's psychological development and foster better elder care.

"If we don't give children a way of looking at aging as a normative, interactive, and necessary process, then what they understand about aging is negative stereotypes," says Braverman Schmidt, who is also the director of older adult services at Jewish Family Services of the North Shore in Salem, Massachusetts. "These are the people who are going to be making policy about long-term care, nursing-home environments, and even social security. If they don't have a positive feeling about aging, then the public-policy support for aging will not be extensive. Institutional care will look like a reasonable alternative."

Elders, whose "retirement" and good health may now last for several decades, are fast becoming America's largest untapped resource, says Eric Kingson, professor of social work and public administration at Syracuse University School of Social Work, an expert on the politics and economics of population aging who has served on two presidential commissions. "People have a right to kick back and relax, but do you want to kick back for five years? For 20 or 30 years?" he asks. "I feel we would rob people of dignity if we did not expect them to contribute to society in a variety of ways throughout their lives." For Kingson and others, intergenerational programs are not just "nice things." He points out that "there are real problems in the school systems that are amenable to some concerted effort to bring old people into the classroom as aides, or to assist [teenage parents] as mentors. The intergenerational programs are not ends in and of themselves, they are vehicles for strengthening communities."

Seniors often have the patience, time, and wisdom of experience from which young people can benefit. In turn, stimulation and integration are crucial for elders' mental health. Isolation and depression are rampant among the elderly, says geriatric psychiatrist Mark Poster, a clinical instructor at the Harvard-affiliated Veterans Administration medical center in Brockton, Massachusetts. "For some elderly people, the focus of the therapy becomes getting them to come out of their rooms." Many other seniors in age-segregated retirement communities or nursing homes, he adds, dislike being "ghetto-ized" with their ailing peers, and crave more diverse contact and the sights and joyful sounds of children.

Poster notes that intergenerational programs, while clearly beneficial, may be preceived as fringe benefits by managed-care providers. The nursing-home industry is facing cutbacks in reimbursements as a result of the federal balanced-budget act, he says, and is struggling to provide necessary services in a capitated system. Promoters of quality-of-life issues, or so-called "wellness programs," have to prove their programs' worth within a marketing and business context, which may not be easy to do.

Braverman Schmidt sees the problem as more of a supply-and-demand issue. New types of housing and care programs will have to be created, she maintains, because aging baby boomers won't stand for age segregation. An unusually well-educated, socially conscious, and monied group, "They want to stay engaged with families and be provided with 'wellness,'" she explains. "'Wellness' means not only exercise and mental stimulation, but includes having people around you of different ages and backgrounds because that's a part of the life-learning process."

That is one of the main focuses of The Eden Alternative™, founded in 1991 by William H. Thomas, M.D. '86. Thomas, who is based in upstate New York, has created a marketable system for making long-term care facilities--where the frailest members of society often live--more normal and humane environments, in part by introducing animals, plants, and children. "It's always been the habit of the older generation to care for the young and transmit culture while the vigorous adults are out slaying the mastodons," he says. "What we're seeing now is work that is trying to repair the breach in industrialized Western society. We're trying to reestablish ancient bonds that have always been good for human beings. The newest links may not be among blood relatives."

The often-romanticized extended family, now most common among new immigrant groups, is fading, Thomas says. Each subsequent generation tends to adopt "the American way" and separate their seniors from the rest of the family. "But is there interest out there in building something new?" he queries. "I think the answer is yes. The people out there doing this work now are pioneers. Society is beginning to understand the cost that comes with alienating young and old people, but [change is] going to take decades."