Foster a mutual sense of worth
Whether we remember the taste of Grandma’s pies or the smell of Grandpa’s cigars, most of us recall our parents’ parents with fondness. After all, they seemed to love us unconditionally — and even spoiled us a little.
Some older adults in our area are stepping up to act as grandparents to children in need. And so far, they’re finding that the time they spend with children as “foster grandparents” gives them a new energy and sense of worth.
“We have something to give to young people. We have skills, experience and knowledge we can pass on,” said Charles Turner, who has been participating in a program called DC Grandparents for Mental Health since last fall. “It was my chance to give back,” he said.
Through the DC Grandparents for Mental Health program, the Washington-based global nonprofit HelpAge USA pairs adults 60 and older with children who can benefit from intergenerational conversations with trusted older people.
Through regular conversations in a church or school, the “grandparents” provide emotional support or simply a listening ear.
“Once you show them that you care about what’s happening with them, then you can maybe have some kind of positive impact,” Turner said.
Both age groups seem to benefit from talking with each other.
“Through this program, older people can give younger people a sense of connection, but they can also gain a sense of purpose,” said Cindy Cox-Roman, CEO of HelpAge USA.
“Older people have the highest rates of isolation, but younger people are twice as likely to feel lonely…No one should be without someone to talk to.”
The need for volunteers in general has grown. According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps, volunteer participation dropped 7% between 2019 and 2021. The decrease, the most significant since these surveys began 21 years ago, was likely the result of the pandemic.
“This is a wake-up call for the social sector, which depends on volunteers, especially as needs for services remain high,” said Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps.
Foster grandparents can help out in just a few hours a week. They can meet with their foster grandchildren either in person or online. Web-based meetings have become more common since the pandemic.
How the program started
DC Grandparents for Mental Health began as a result of a group of older volunteers who found joy in working together.
During the pandemic, HelpAge USA and the DC Department of Aging and Community Living recruited 500 volunteers to fan out and urge fellow seniors to get vaccinated.
When the task force had completed their mission, a core group “wanted to stay together” and help more people, Cox-Roman said.
A volunteer named Judy Brown, who was mourning 15 members of her community who died of Covid, suggested that they regroup with a focus on mental health.
“I lost friends I grew up with. A lot of my other friends, I couldn’t get them out of the house,” said Brown, who herself still suffers from panic attacks.
“I told Cindy, ‘We need to do something about mental illness. If we can only help one person, we can make a difference.’”
But how, exactly, could this small group help? For inspiration, Cox-Roman looked to a Zimbabwe-based program called Friendship Bench, which enlists grandmothers to talk to younger children in schools or churches in a form of free talk therapy.
“We as a society don’t have enough resources to deal with mental health issues,” Cox-Roman pointed out. But “there are simple ways that laypeople can be trained to keep anxiety and depression from spiraling into something worse.”
Beginning this summer and fall, HelpAge USA will train 25 to 30 retirees in D.C. for a year-long pilot program, known as Grandparents Bench.
Riffing off of Friendship Bench, HelpAge USA will train retirees to participate in four to six sessions with kids who might feel isolated.
“We’re not training them to be therapists. We’re giving them the tools that they can use to make a significant improvement on people’s mental health,” Cox-Roman said.
Foster Grandparents is nationwide
AmeriCorps Seniors, the federal government program, oversees a nationwide Foster Grandparents program. More than 200,000 Americans over age 55 volunteer with AmeriCorps Seniors.
This year, the DC Department of Aging and Community Living is seeking local volunteers for the Foster Grandparents program. The State of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services is seeking more participants for its program throughout Maryland, too.
Each week, foster grandparents spend 20 hours visiting with kids in juvenile detention facilities, who can truly benefit from some one-on-one attention.
They sit beside children in a classroom setting, helping them with homework and talking to them. The goal is to improve each child’s behavior through mentoring sessions. (Income-eligible seniors receive a small stipend.)
“I like to be with the kids who don’t have anyone to talk to,” said Lorraine Mitchell, who has been a Foster Grandparent for more than a dozen years.
“I hope I’m helping them by listening to their tales. They do me a favor; it gets me out of the house every day. It’s something to look forward to. When I don’t go, I miss them. It helps me as much as it helps them,” Mitchell said.
Bridging the gap
Some older adults might be reluctant to participate in these activities due to fear of the younger generation, Turner said.
“A lot of our seniors are afraid of young people. In our area, most of the information they get from the media or word of mouth is that young people are to be avoided or scared of.
“I believe that we should get over that shyness of dealing with young people,” he said. “I’m trying to get more of our seniors to step up.”
Stepping up to help with Foster Grandparents or DC Grandparents for Mental Health can boost retirees’ confidence, Turner said.
“Once we reach seniorship, people tend to want to put us on a shelf to just vegetate. I believe we seniors have skills, abilities and expertise that are still valuable, and we can still use them,” Turner said.
“We still have worth. We still have something to give. We still have the opportunity to grow and learn and evolve.”
For more information about DC Grandparents for Mental Health and Grandparents Bench, contact HelpAge USA at (202) 709-8442.
To volunteer as an AmeriCorps Senior Foster Grandparent anywhere in Maryland, call (410) 663-8822.
The AmeriCorps Seniors program operating throughout Northern Virginia is known as RSVP Northern Virginia, and can be reached at (703) 403-5360.
Correction: The print version of this article refers to a similar program in New Orleans. HelpAge USA is not involved in that initiative.