Bridging the gap between generations

Relationships: Everyone benefits when young people and the elderly interact.

Life After 50

November 21, 1999|By Mary Moorhead | Mary Moorhead,Knight Ridder/Tribune

MONTREAL -- As I prepared to visit the Grandparents House of Villeray here during an international conference on aging, I pondered the normal age-group segregation that occurs in our daily lives. As preschoolers, middle-schoolers, teens, adults and seniors, we go about our daily routines mostly interacting with our peers. I wondered, what would it be like if we co-mingled with other generations throughout the day? Would we grow to understand each other? Would our lives be richer?

After a morning spent chattering in French with a group of lively volunteers in their 70s and 80s, I was convinced that we all lose in our age-centric lives.

Those typically in their 50s to 80s organize and lead all activities at the Grandparents House (La Maison), an intergenerational community center. La Maison strives to assist struggling low-income families in the surrounding Montreal neighborhood.

La Maison is a large renovated house. There is a comfortable living room, den and inviting dining area. I loved the sunlit modern kitchen with an enormous picture window that overlooks a century-old church.

Programs include collective cooking projects, the teaching of ancient crafts, a sewing center, a secondhand clothing store, one-on-one tutoring projects for teens and middle-schoolers, drawing and games with visiting classes of preschoolers, a summer camp, dinner-theater soirees and much more.

The grandparents also fan out to local schools and volunteer in the classrooms.

A typical project pairs a senior with a single mother and her children. They plan meals, shop and cook together. After enjoying a pleasurable dinner, the mother takes additional meals home for her freezer. The mother learns budgeting, nutrition and cooking skills, and she gains a new friend and confidante. The children gain a "grandma" and an additional stable adult in their lives. The senior shares a lifetime of skills and wisdom, and contributes, one family at a time, to the improvement of the community.

The sewing projects have the same warm, busy and supportive feeling. Typically, a senior assists a group of middle-schoolers or teens in making the clothing of their choice. While teaching life skills, the senior develops camaraderie and becomes an attentive ear to sort out difficulties at home or in school.

Teens, typically a difficult group to reach, particularly enjoy the individual attention they receive during academic tutoring. One volunteer became well liked by a group of male teens because he encouraged them to start a successful rap group.

In addition to bridging the gap between generations and giving tangible and intangible rewards to all who participate, the Grandparents House has received numerous awards from the Canadian government. It has also been the catalyst for similar programs throughout Canada.

After saying goodbye to my new friends at La Maison, I thought of our age-segregated lives here in America. I began to fantasize:

What would it be like to see bus loads of seniors pulling up at local schools to volunteer in the classrooms? What can we do to encourage such rich intergenerational relationships?

Mary B. Moorhead is a licensed family therapist and elder-care specialist. Write to her at 1664 Solano Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94707. Or e-mail her at

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