I moved to Little Rock, Ark., 28 years ago, a long way from my home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the years, I have grown to love this city and the state. My children were reared here; this is where I belong.
As I reach my 64th birthday, I can only hope that my family digs deep Arkansas roots and that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will forever remain Arkansans. Sadly, these days we scatter to all four corners of the nation, often removed from our family and devoid of the vibrant relationships that a close extended family can provide.
Our parents retire to sunny destinations, our children attend college out of state and find job opportunities elsewhere and new families dig roots far removed from their own birthplace. Children rarely get to know older people, and developing strong ties to grandparents is difficult. As the American population becomes increasingly segregated by age, are we missing out on the enormous power of intergenerational relationships?
In the last several months, two life-changing events have caused me to think seriously about this issue. Last week, my father-in-law passed away, and my children lost their only remaining grandfather. A great man with a quick wit and sage insights into life, James Wilson left an indelible impact on our hearts, and he will be dearly missed. Sadly, Jim lived in California and his grandchildren, who grew up in Arkansas, spent very little time with him.
As children and teenagers, their contact with Jim was limited to annual summer vacation and a few holiday visits. Only as young adults did my children begin to form a more meaningful relationship with him. Now that he is gone, I have to wonder — what did they miss?
Three months ago, my son's wife had their first child, and I recently traveled to Midland, Mich., to meet my beautiful 12-week-old granddaughter, Sidney Marie. When I held that baby to my chest, I felt true unconditional love, a joy that I could only understand as a grandparent. How grateful I am that my son and his wife have given me this treasure. At that moment, as she slept in my arms, I resolved to be the best possible grandfather, to know her, spend time with her and to share all the wisdom that I have amassed in 64 years. But, will I know her well? She will grow up far away for me; the times we spend together will be short. How will I overcome the challenges of long-distance grandparenting?
As I face the challenge of becoming a new grandparent, I am more and more convinced that we are losing the benefits of intergenerational life. We must promote more intergenerational programs, projects and activities.
Intergenerational relationships strengthen individuals, families and communities. They bring together diverse groups, dispel stereotypical views of old age and help prevent age-related alienation.
Intergenerational relationships have positive health benefits for children and older people. Children involved in intergenerational relationships see enhanced social skills, better academic performance, less risk of using drugs and an enhanced sense of stability. For the average grandparent, the closer the grandchild is, the healthier, less lonely and more social he or she will be. Involved grandparents learn a great deal from the younger generation and have the fantastic opportunity for unconditional love, while leaving discipline and tough decisions to the parents.
My hat is off to those grandparents who, for various reasons, assume all parenting responsibilities. This is a much more difficult task, rewarding but also stressful, with a high risk of developing illness. Fortunately, there are many resources in the community to help grandparents who rear their grandchildren.
If you are an older adult without children or grandchildren, I strongly recommend you become involved in an intergenerational program. Mentor children, become a cyber-grandparent or simply befriend a younger neighbor. Older adults are our modern-day sages, with wisdom and insight to impart to all community members. Resolve today to become more involved with someone of a different generation. I promise it will be a rewarding and healthy experience. Americans must recognize the critical importance of intergenerational communities. If we do, we will all benefit.
Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book "Breaking the Rules of Aging." To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. More information is available at www.drdavidhealth.com.