National Edition

Young and old together: Why kids and the elderly benefit from close relationships

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14 2014 11:05 a.m. MST

Archie D. Fellows, Archie L. Fellows and Archie M. "Matt" Fellows share a laugh on the young man's wedding day last year. He was close to his grandfather, who died recently. Young people and old people are drawn to each other, the relationships mutually valuable.

Chris Wood, Robert Wood Photography

HIGHLAND — No one's quite sure when the youngest Anderson kids started calling their elderly neighbors and friends "Grandma" and "Grandpa."

What their parents, Jeff and Heather Anderson, are sure of is that Shawn, 8, and Olivia, 11, would have a less colorful life without the interactions they enjoy with people much older than themselves, from their neighbor "Grandma Margie" to their actual grandparents, Carl and Rosalin Anderson.

"I grew up without grandparents, so I am a little jealous of the relationship my kids have with their grandma and grandpa," Heather Anderson said. "I never had that kind of unconditional love."

She believes elderly friends give her children that love without being judgmental. And the children give back "joy, youthfulness, happiness."

Anderson's older children, Mitchell and Alex, now adults, grew up close to her husband's folks, who offered their perspective and experience when needed. Sometimes, the distance of an extra generation was just enough to let everyone see things a bit differently.

The U.S. Administration on Aging says that by 2030, one in every five residents will be 65 or older. While many note the extra burden on society in terms of health care and retirement costs, sociologists and psychologists are among those who say there's an upside as well, found in the rich interactions possible between young people and old. Many positives come from young and old learning from, loving and encouraging each other, they say.

"I didn't have a lot of old people in my life," Anderson said. "I don't know what it's like to have a grandma or grandpa. I missed having someone just loving me because they loved me."

Someone to admire

Karen Wrolson is so convinced kids and old people need one another that when she worked with teens in danger of dropping out of school in La Crosse, Wis., she took them to a local veterans' hospital to interview the elderly vets and create bonds.

Kids need to know "that there are real heroes in the world — not basketball players or drug dealers, but real heroes," Wrolson said. "I also wanted the old people to realize that behind the saggy pants and blue hair, there are also real people, and they don't need to be afraid."

That's not to say that all grandparents are loving — or old, for that matter — or that all relationships with the elderly are great, Wrolson and others interviewed for this story noted. But a good relationship with old people gives something to youths they will not find elsewhere.

Because the old and young in her program met as strangers, it was initially awkward, she said, with both sides intimidated. They warmed to one another quickly. Young and old tend to be drawn to each other.

Wrolson was a troubled teen and dropout herself, though she eventually got back on track and now holds two master's degrees. She's a life coach in Camarillo, Calif., and still works often with teens.

Her children were raised without loving grandparents nearby. "I kind of forced them to be around old people in different ways," she said, from taking them trick-or-treating at a nursing home to recruiting older friends into her kids' lives.

Old age, she said, is like looking down from atop a mountain. "Now you're at the top and can see things much more clearly." That's especially helpful to teens who need guidance but won't always listen to their parents.

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