by Salwa Choucair
R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Aretha Franklin sang about it, parents strive to teach it to their children, and it is commonly talked about in schools and households daily. But its definition, “to admire, show regard and consideration for,” is often lost in translation when applied to a fast-growing segment of today’s society – seniors or mature adults.
This year marked the beginning of an extraordinary phenomenon, the first of the baby-boom generation reached retirement age, and for the next 18 years, boomers will turn 65 at a rate of about 8,000 a day, according to the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) website.
Besides aging of the baby-boom generation, people are living longer these days, explains James Stedman, Ph.D., clinical professor and psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
“Our lifespan has increased,” Stedman says. Where once we talked about people living into their 60s, now we see people living well into their 90s. It is not uncommon to see three generations within a family. “Eventually, the parent becomes the sole provider or caregiver of a parent,” adds Stedman.
With this increase not only in lifespan but in the numbers of seniors, also comes a greater need for parents to teach their children how to respect their elders, from their own grandparents and great grandparents to their neighbors. How children learn to interact with seniors today is how they will more than likely treat their parents as they become seniors tomorrow, says Amy Goyer, AARP’s family expert, specializing in intergenerational relationships for more than 25 years.
Goyer offers the following advice when teaching children to respect their elders: role model, humanize, and facilitate.
Model Proper Behavior
“Parents need to understand and realize that they are teaching their kids by what they do and how they treat their parents,” Goyer says.
For example, when a parent becomes the caregiver to his parent, the child observes this and learns that this is acceptable and normal. Of course, when the caregiver/parent becomes frustrated and complains, the child observes this as well, and if that is the majority of what he hears, then he may have a negative view of caretaking.
The message parents should strive to impart to their children when it comes to role modeling is that, as loved ones get older, they may need support, says Goyer, who is the primary caregiver to her parents.
“Be careful not to parent your parent,” she continues. “The history of what they have done for you is always there. Care giving is hard and very frustrating, but I try to show the fun to my nieces and nephews whenever I can.”
While it is normal to get upset as a caregiver, this is not necessarily what children should see. Goyer suggests taking the time to talk honestly with kids and let them know it’s OK to be upset. Let your kids know it is not a burden to take care of Grandma and Grandpa, and help them see that Grandma and Grandpa are human with feelings too.
Stedman explains, “You project to your children the norms and values of your family.” It’s up to the parent to socialize their children and help them understand that seniors may lose physical and mental capacities, but they are still valued.
Even through the physical and mental changes, it’s important for children to relate to seniors on an ongoing basis. Goyer points to a study conducted 17 years ago by AARP in which elementary students were asked to draw a picture of an older person and a picture of a younger person. Students who knew someone who was older were less likely to draw someone with white hair or a walker or wheelchair than students who did not personally know a senior.
In fact, if the only contact a child has with a senior is one who has physical or medical needs, it may be a good idea to expose them to other seniors who are active so he can see that all seniors are not alike, says Goyer.
Sharing family stories helps children humanize a senior as well. For example, Goyer tells her nieces and nephews stories of her father’s love for animals to help them make a connection and understand their grandfather better.
When a grandparent faces physical obstacles, it is important for the parent to remind children that Grandpa or Grandma still want to talk and are still interested in what’s happening in their grandchildren’s lives. Goyer suggests parents help their children understand what a grandparent who is facing physical or mental obstacles may feel. For example, if a grandparent is no longer able to drive a car, the parent can compare that loss to a child’s favorite toy being taken away. Young children can relate to the emotions.
In almost every situation, it is up to a parent to facilitate or bridge the gap between the senior and the child. Stedman adds that a kids’ developmental level should always be taken into account when trying to teach respect.
Younger children will be more comfortable with older adults if they have something familiar to play with, such as a favorite toy or coloring book. Parents can help by providing a special “Grandma or Grandpa” bag of favorite toys to leave at the grandparent’s home. Whenever the kids visit, they have something to look forward to and the grandparents enjoy watching them play.
As children get older and become teenagers, it may be more difficult to get them to interact with adults of any age, but it is still important to try. With technology becoming more instrumental in their daily lives, teens have the unique opportunity to teach grandparents what’s new, such as texting, Skyping and downloading music and videos to iPhones, iPads and other gadgets.
This new technology can bridge the distance for those grandchildren who live far away. Talking to grandparents in real time via Skype and seeing their faces are incredible relationship builders.
When school assignments touch close to home with a grandparent, be sure students get the chance to interview one or both grands. For example, Goyer’s nieces and nephews interviewed her father for a class project about veterans of war.
Parents can facilitate other projects on their own, such as making a scrapbook of their family. Each child can interview their grandparents on different subjects such as what school was like when they were younger, their very first job, etc.
When it comes to teaching children to respect their elders, Goyer concludes, it is as simple as appreciating them.
“There is always something to appreciate in everyone,” she says. “Role model that you appreciate people and speak to others with respect.”
Using these techniques for teaching children to respect not only their elders but all people, will provide lessons that will last a lifetime and also result in respect for the kids
For more information review AARP articles and Goyer’s blog at www.aarp.org/personal-growth/transitions/boomers_65/ and blog.aarp.org/author/amygoyer/.
Salwa Choucair is a San Antonio freelance writer and the mother of two.