These seniors make a difference in children's lives and find joy in their new friendships.
- Posted on Mar 9, 2018
Content provided by Good Samaritan Society.
As seniors age, they may not feel like they can make a difference in the life of a child. But children benefit from nurturing relationships with adults of all ages, and adults benefit when they interact with children. We've compiled three multi-generational stories from locations across the United States.
Cathy Zerfas, a resident at Good Samaritan Society – Prairie Creek in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, began mentoring two elementary school-aged girls a year ago as part of Lutheran Social Service’s mentoring program.
“There are kids at every age that need someone giving their time and letting them know they’re important.” —Cathy Zerfas
She decided to become a mentor after her young granddaughter moved away. Cathy had spent a lot of time with the child and felt lost after she was gone. “Mentoring saved me, every bit as it’s maybe helping these two little girls,” she says.
As a retired teacher, Cathy had many years of experience in a school setting with younger students. She points out that if a person isn’t comfortable with young children, they can mentor an older child. Even many teenagers need a mentor.
Cathy’s students are both now in second grade. She visits the school twice a week so that she can meet with each of them separately.
As a mentor, Cathy is playing a crucial role in the girls’ lives. She provides a vital piece that’s often missing for children: consistent interaction with an adult who is spending one-on-one time with them. “Because it’s one-on-one, I’m focused on that child,” Cathy says. “Kids don’t often get that in the classroom. I think that’s huge for them.”
On her first day of mentoring this year, both girls already asked if she would still mentor them next year.
“They just appreciate so much. They’re so unique and remarkable.” —Cathy Zerfas
Each week, after they eat lunch, Cathy and her mentees like to spend time doing crafts, coloring, playing foosball or playing with dolls and puppets. The girls are learning and growing as they do these activities with Cathy.
One of the girls was fairly quiet in the beginning, but now she’s blossomed. And recently, Cathy found out that she and this student have a fun connection. Her student went to kindergarten in another South Dakota town more than 100 miles away, and her teacher from that year is Cathy’s best friend. The student was so excited when they learned about this.
Cathy has nothing but positive things to say about her mentoring experience. “They make me happy. I’m just glad I can do something for them,” says Cathy. "The time spent is rewarding for me, too.”
For many years, preschoolers have looked forward to visiting residents at Good Samaritan Society – Waconia and Westview Acres as part of the Grandfriends program.
Having residents and preschoolers interact is a long-standing tradition in this Minnesota center. They’ve coordinated the program with Trinity Lutheran Preschool for 10 years and worked with another preschool for about 20 years prior to that.
“It’s amazing how much energy the program creates in the residents,” says Denise Leonhardt, life enrichment/wellness director at Good Samaritan Society – Waconia and Westview Acres. “And, they know they’re helping the kids — whether it’s with a project or helping with reading.”
The preschoolers come once a month and enjoy the different themes that are planned with the residents. Each time they meet, they have a welcome time, eat a snack and do an activity related to the theme that month. Before the children leave, they also sing to the residents.
“The residents just light up when hearing the children singing.” —Sue Henrichs, life enrichment director at the care center at Good Samaritan Society – Waconia and Westview Acres
The Grandfriends program has proven to be beneficial for many of the residents, whose average age is 80 to 85. “There is really good interaction between the residents and the children,” Sue says.
And the time they spend with them has been a walk down memory lane for residents. It reminds them of the joys of raising their own children and helping care for their grandchildren. “Any time they have access to children, it just brightens their day,” says Sue. “No matter the personality of the preschoolers, they enjoy them all.”
Residents appreciate the innocence of the children. When someone has a limitation, such as an amputation, the children will ask about it in a matter-of-fact manner, and the resident will explain it. “It’s such a non-judgmental environment with those 3- and 4-year-olds,” Sue says.
The Grandfriends program has brought something special to the residents at Waconia. “We all want to matter,” says Sue. “That’s what it is for the residents.”
Seniors are making a difference in the lives of children in one North Dakota town. The second Wednesday of every month, residents at Good Samaritan Society – Park River spend an hour engaging with local fifth-graders.
“Many look forward to it,” says Nannette Hoeger, activities director at Park River. “Some residents aren’t verbal, but they come for the sensory experience.”
When Nannette began working there more than four years ago, she knew how important it was for seniors to interact with children, so she started the program shortly after arriving.
Each month, the students participate in a different activity with residents. Some of those activities include playing bingo, decorating pumpkins, making lefse (a traditional Norwegian flatbread), building gingerbread houses, making Valentine crafts and having an Easter egg hunt.
Several in this town of 1,373 don’t have family in the area. For that reason, Nannette says it’s nice to have the children visit the center so the residents can spend quality time with them. The residents appreciate the chance to interact with them and make a difference in their lives.
Besides their monthly visits, students are encouraged to come to events at the center that are open to the community.
“I think it helps the kids to not be afraid of the nursing home. It helps them to see the residents are just grandpas and grandmas.” —Lara Carlson, resource development director
On Friday afternoons, when the weather is nice, the residents go outside for walks. Nannette tells the students to feel free to ride their bikes over and join them. “We help them realize it’s a fun place to be,” says Nannette.
Spending time with the students gives residents meaning and purpose. And the relationships they build help the children to be comfortable around seniors.
“It’s amazing how they have that contact and remember residents’ names,” Nannette says. “They ask for particular residents if they aren’t there.”
There is a unique camaraderie between young and old. It’s a time for the group to bond and do fun things together. “There are residents who really enjoy seeing those kids,” says Lara. “Being involved with the school has really gotten children involved here.”
When the children are at the center, they learn and grow from being with residents. It’s a positive experience for everyone.
“They brighten up the residents’ lives and vice versa,” says Nannette.