Just two decades ago grandparents played a key role in a child’s upbringing. Cohabitation of three generations was the norm and even if that were not the case the role of babysitter or nanny was practically non-existent because grandparents automatically took over whenever the need arose. Since the fall of communism opened up new opportunities, things have changed. Young families now live alone and their elderly parents often either work or live too far away to help out. While this gives both sides greater freedom and independence to live as they choose, there is a downside – grandchildren are fast loosing contact with their grandparents and slowly a divide is opening up between the youngest and oldest generations in the family.
The results of a poll conducted among teenagers last year shocked psychologists. A third of respondents said they considered old people a burden to society. Iva Fundová Macková is from the Czech branch of YWCA.
“Many teenagers who filled in the questionnaire said they did not like old people, that they did not understand them, were not comfortable in their company and even to some extent feared to approach them.”
Psychologist Zuzana Kohoutová says that the implications of this are very serious –most of all for the young people concerned.
“The outcome of the poll saddens me deeply. Because these young people are being robbed of something very important –they lack insight into old age, illness and things that are part of life. As a result they may have serious problems coming to terms with their own infirmity and old age. They will most likely fear growing old, they will fear that they will be lonely, that others will look down on them and they may think they will have nothing more to give at that stage. It is regrettably something our society is contributing to – we do not make use of the gifts that seniors can give us.”
Senior citizens homes, kindergartens and NGOs working with children and the elderly are now trying to bridge that gap by getting kids to spend more time with elderly people, even if they are not related.
People from old age homes visit kindergartens to spend a few hours with the children every week, telling them stories, helping them make a bird-feed, cut out paper decorations but above all chatting and making friends. In other cases kindergarten children visit an old age home for an hour or so. Marie is 97 and the age difference between her and little Jáchym is 92 years.
“This brightens our day and gives us something to do and something to look forward to – no sense in lying in bed all day is there? “
Little Jáchym, meanwhile is learning the lessons of give-and-take.
“The teachers tell us to be nice to older people and help them.”
Many of these seniors have children and grandchildren who live far away and who they only get to see on occasion. These kids bring a breath of fresh air into their daily existence and by talking about their hobbies and interests help improve communication with their own grandchildren.
“Children who don’t have this relationship lose out on many things. I am sure we all remember the stories that our grandparents would tell us when we were kids about their own childhood and youth. I remember my grandmother telling me about the war, about how they would hide to escape the bombings, she would tell me other people’s stories that she knew. By telling these stories grandparents help children understand the plight of others, other people’s joys and sorrows and in that way they help develop a child’s empathy. That is terribly important and it is something that is being lost.”
The project to bring together children and elderly people is actively supported by the Czech branch of YWCA which helps organize free time activities both for seniors and children. It says that the time spent together is invaluable for both sides. Older people who may be lonely and no longer able to go out and about suddenly get a new interest which may help them overcome the aches and pains of old age, they feel useful once again and look forward to the time spent together with the children.
Zuzana Kohoutová says that grandparents have a great deal to offer.
“Grandparents are more patient, they are willing to listen for longer and answer the endless questions that children always ask. Parents tend to be more impatient, more practical and task-oriented and sometimes just too busy to give kids that kind of attention. So grandparents are terribly important and I think that if a child does not have that relationship then spending time with elderly people through the kindergarten projects is the next best thing because the place or blood relationship is not so important – what is, is the precious and wonderful friendships formed across generations.”
While there is general support for this new trend some parents may be concerned about what their child may witness or how they may be affected by a visit to an old age home. I asked psychologist Zuzana Kohoutová to address those concerns.
“I would encourage these visits as early as possible. And if parents have a problem with them then it is generally their own problem or fear that they need to address.
Because young children are very open-minded, they do not fear illness or old age, they are simply curious and they are very receptive to all the positive things that these elderly people can give them. Even in a family environment, a child is receptive to what is going on when grandparents say something different from what their parents say – like slipping them chocolates before lunch which they know is not allowed. They realize the way things work in a family, the way relationships work and you get this wonderful bond and conspiracy with a grandparent. This is very important and even such tiny incidents create firm friendships.”
Meanwhile, in Brno families are going about it their own way – using the services of an agency which offers “grandmas” as nannies and babysitters.
The EU-funded child-care project is aimed at helping families with young children juggle work and family but also to establish a “grandma” bond between the nanny and children who don’t have grandparents of their own or whose grandparents live far away. The Brno Centre for Family Planning and Child Care launched the “rent-a-granny” scheme in 2012 along the lines of the Oma Dienst project successfully implemented in neighbouring Austria. Its name –Clover – denotes a bond between three generations: seniors, young parents and children.