His name was Richard. He spoke several languages, lived all over the world, could quote any historical poem or great novel. He was a gourmet cook, gifted pianist, brilliant debater. He was one of my most treasured friends, teachers and confidants.
He was 80.
When I spoke of Richard, my peers assumed I was a martyr to some pathetic karmic duty. It never naturally occurred to them I was friends with him because I wanted to be. When he passed away, it left a gaping void in my life, so intertwined had he become in the scholarship of my days.
May-December friendships are rare. Consider your relationship with your grandparents compared to that of your children. Overstuffed with sports, homework, music, horseback riding, volunteering, theater, friends and that little thing called sleep, modern kids don’t make time with their grandparents, or elders in general, a priority.
America worships the young. As a result, elders are stuffed in the “irrevelant box” with VHS tapes and fax machines.
The truth is, despite formidable efforts to the contrary, we are going to be old someday and crave the attention of grandkids. If children are allowed to slump over their phones at Gramp’s house today, their kids will be dancing with holograms instead of bothering with you tomorrow. As importantly, elders actually have pretty amazing knowledge to share that, if not passed down, will vanish with the ice caps. Hearing about life before laptops, cooking generations-old recipes, reading an actual map, re-enacting holiday traditions, naming the night sky constellations – all simply precious and worthy lessons.
My son is fortunate that three of his grandparents are alive. Having lost my grandparents at a young age, I value the time he spends with his. There will be a day, closer than his eternal mind can grasp, when he calls them and the line will go unanswered. Today matters.
If your family is grandparent-less, there are plenty of opportunities for your children to pollinate these friendships. Someone in your neighborhood probably could use a hand-drawn card, sweetly picked flowers or even a bright smile. Call your local nursing home to set a time for the family to play games with the residents or read or sing for them. Through the Opportunity Alliance’s Foster Grandparent program, elders can mentor children with special needs in a supervised setting.
At St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence in Portland, a program allows staff to bring their children to work on school days. Rehab manager Amy McGeachey Bond’s daughter has grown especially attached to some grand-friends.
“She makes gifts for them so they know she is thinking about them,” says Bond. “It teaches her a lot not only about the older generations, but also about those with disabilities.”
Such acts of compassion benefit the health of the community, according to Dan Buettner, who, in his 2012 book, “The Blue Zones,” researched populations around the world that have high percentages of residents living long, active and happy lives. In the majority of the Blue Zones, there is a deep-rooted devotion to and respect for the older generations, he found.
Grandparents are an integral part of child rearing, education and housekeeping. Their relationships with grandchildren give them a meaningful purpose.
“Opposite ends of the life spectrum seem to fit in a way that other familial relationships do not, with a tenderness and wonder that seem to embody much of what is good with humanity,” says John Thibodeau, a social worker in Portland who focuses on geriatric therapy. “With that in mind, I have also seen when a grandchild moves far away, the deep sadness and negative impact it can have on a grandparent. I’ve seen many clients feel profound loss and grief that they never recover from. That speaks to the power and importance that such relationships can have.”
After Richard passed away, I met friends of his who would clasp my hands and delight in telling me the joy he had found in my company. Your children, too, have the power to create this everlasting magic.