Befriending seniors: A worthy, rewarding volunteering opportunity for kids

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The nonprofit Families Giving Back hosts family volunteering events at local nursing homes and offers at-home project ideas, such as making Valentine’s cards for seniors, at familiesgivingback.org. Photos courtesy of Families Giving Back.

Our views of aging evolve. As kids, all we want is to be older. Then, at some point during adulthood, all we want is to completely stop aging. We fight the clock.

When I was a teenager, I remember commenting about my mom’s wrinkles, and her response has stayed with me. She told me she was proud of them and thought of them as character lines — I quipped that she must have a lot of character! — and that every line tells a story.

I’d be lying if I said I welcome every new wrinkle with my mother’s confidence. But her words remind me how much history, life experience and wisdom seniors have to offer, and how important it is for my husband and I to teach our boys to be comfortable with, appreciate and lend a helping hand to their elders.

Families Giving Back has hosted family volunteering events at local nursing homes, including Phoenix Mountain Nursing Center in north Phoenix. We also offer step-by-step instructions for an at-home card-making project to benefit residents at the center.

For young kids, it can be intimidating at first to interact with seniors they don’t know. Here are some ways to help children feel comfortable:

• Be a role model. Like most behaviors, children learn by example. One of the best ways for your child to learn how to interact with and offer a caring hand to seniors is for them to see you doing it. Whether it’s bringing an elderly neighbor their mail or baking them cookies, visiting a relative who’s in a nursing home or simply saying “Hello” to seniors you see throughout your day — your child will become more interested in spending time with seniors if they see you happily interacting with them.

• Read books. Books that involve relationships between young and older characters is a great way to help your children learn how to interact with seniors and the benefits of those relationships.

• Explain the benefits of age/life experience. Reinforce the idea that although seniors may experience physical and mental limitations as they grow older, they still have so much to offer. Explain that some senior citizens can get lonely and sad as they grow older, and seeing and spending time with children can really brighten their day.

• Plan a visit. When you feel your child is ready, visiting a nursing home can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for young and old. If you don’t have a relative or friend who lives at a nursing home, it’s important to call the facility to make sure they’re open to family visits. Staff members also can help determine the best resident(s) to visit and the best time to come. Talk to your children about what they might see (wheelchairs, medical equipment, etc.) and answer any questions or concerns they might have. Bringing an activity, such as a favorite game or book, will help your child be more comfortable and engaged. Your child may be shy at first, so come prepared with some conversation starters to help break the ice. After the visit, talk to your child about what happened and how they felt, honestly answering any questions they have.

• Consider additional volunteering opportunities. As your children get older and have more experience interacting with seniors, you might want to explore other volunteering opportunities, such Meals on Wheels, volunteering at a senior center or “adopting” someone at a nursing home. These are all wonderful opportunities for your children to lend a hand and benefit from all the history and wisdom seniors have to offer.

Like anything, the more your kids interact with senior citizens, the more comfortable they will be. Over time, it will be hard to tell who’s having more fun and getting more out of the experience — the seniors or the youngsters.

Children can bring joy and smiles to seniors like no one else, and seniors can give children so much love and attention and offer so many life lessons. Kids who spend time around seniors will grow to understand that wrinkles should be revered, for each one has a story to tell.

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