Marilyn Heins

Geriatrica is a land where we old people dwell. Children, who live in the Land of Youth, do not know much about our territory.

The two kindest and most loving statements I know are “let me teach you” and “let me help you.” We elderly people have a job to do. We are the ones to teach young children about aging and model how to be old. Let’s teach the children what it is like to be old, as truthfully and cheerfully as we can.

Even very young grandchildren who visit us in Geriatrica can tell that we elderly people are different. We don’t resemble the other grown-ups they know like parents and teachers. We may not move around easily the way younger adults do. We may have accoutrements like hearing aids, canes, walkers, portable oxygen. Visiting us in this new place can be scary at first.

I remember astonishment that my grandparents could take out their teeth! How funny that Grandma put her eyeglasses in the refrigerator and left the milk on the table! I was shushed and told it was not polite to laugh at other people even if what they did was funny.

Four-year-old me saw a grown man in a restaurant wearing a bib and being fed by a woman. Like any little kid, I pointed, giggled and stared until my father told me to stop. “It’s not polite to point and stare at people.

My own grandchild touched my flabby neck waving in the breeze and asked, “What’s this, grandma?” I told him the truth: “These are my wattles, Joshua.” “Will I get them too?” “Not until you are very, very, very old.”

Mr. Census Bureau tells me that the number of people aged 65 and older is nearly 48 million, 14.9 percent of the total population. We are a big tribe.

But children today are often segregated from elderly people. We are a mobile society so a child’s own grandparents may live thousands of miles away. Because people marry later and have children later, children may have either no grandparents or very elderly grandparents. Grandma is more likely to be in a retirement community than live in her child’s house as in the past. Retirement communities, sadly, do not usually have children around.

A parent asked me about her a child who did not want to visit her octogenarian grandfather.

“My son, 13, deals well with my often cranky and short-tempered father, now 80. My daughter is 11 and has expressed to me that she is not ‘comfortable with old people.’ My father is frail and doesn’t make interesting conversation. Any hints on how to foster this relationship for as long as it is able to continue?”

I wrote, “I am really glad your daughter could express her feelings so clearly to you. Dealing with the frail elderly is difficult for many people as it requires lots of patience. The elderly can be slow in body movement and speech. What they do talk about can be very remote to an almost teen.

“Maybe your daughter can make her time with your father a sort of project. How can I get Grandpa interested in what kids do these days? Maybe a video game? Reminisce with her about what your father was like when you were growing up. What were his accomplishments and interests? Maybe she could go over old photos with him to spark him up a bit.

“As long as she is attentive to your parent’s needs (helps them up from a chair, gets them food from a buffet table) and treats them kindly, I would be satisfied for now. You don’t want her to feel guilty when the inevitable happens.”

For parents, the challenge is to raise children who are sensitive to all kinds of people and who care about the feelings of others. This means your family values empathy, kindness and helpfulness. You model these characteristics for your children and reward them with praise when they are exhibited.

Parents should make every effort to expose their children to us old guys. I attended my Aunt Helen’s 90th birthday dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Boston. When the birthday cake was paraded through the room there was applause. Total strangers told her how wonderful she looked at 90 and one little girl asked for her autograph on a napkin!

No elderly people in your child’s life? Adopt some. One family I know “adopted” an old gentleman from church. They asked him to share Sunday dinner every week and join the family for birthdays and other celebrations.

Invite elderly neighbors to holiday celebrations. Offer to drive them places. Bring your children with you when you help out an elderly neighbor. Children need to know what 90 looks like. And those in their 90s thrive when they have contact with children!

We have one more task to do. We must teach our own grown children what it is like to be an elderly person living in Geriatrica. Some of us are aging well and look pretty good. Others like the gentleman in today’s letter, not so good.

When our children come to visit we go all out to put our best foot forward but in advanced old age our best foot might be swollen or we are limping on it.

Remember grown children are never totally grown up. A part of them, the small child inside, wants their parents to stay around so they often see us in better shape than we are.

“C’mon, Pop! I’ll do the driving, all you have to do is sit there! It will be loads of fun! We’ll stop at that restaurant you like and have a big bowl of chili you like so much!” When Pop gets home he can hardly get out of the car fast enough to upchuck the chili that does not rest well in his old tummy. Pop has to learn to say no more long drives and chili.

Mom has to say, “No, sorry I simply can’t do Thanksgiving anymore. But please come because we find holiday air travel tough these days. Either you guys shop and cook, or we order in, or we go out to eat.” Mom also must learn to say, “We both need to rest sometime during the day, so you guys have to spend some time alone.”

We have to politely say “No!” to our adult children just like when they were little kids. But instead of saying, “No, you must never do that again!” we have a new phrase, “No, I can never do that again!” It may feel funny at first but you will get used to it. And so will your children. If you taught ‘em right!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your questions on topics throughout the life cycle. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com