How do you handle differences? How do we view and interact with people of different cultures, socio-economic status, age, gender and religion? The question of how we relate to people who are not exactly like us is an important one to ask yourself.
One lesson that I have learned working in the Childpeace Intergenerational program at the Terrace over the past ten years is that you must live it. We can learn about people who are different from us through reading, songs and art but to truly begin to understand a person or group of people you must spend time with them.
I have to admit that when I first started at The Terrace I was not completely comfortable with the Residents. (Resident is the term of respect that we use to refer to the elderly population at The Terrace). Growing up as a child my grandparents lived far away, so beyond our holiday visits, I simply did not interact regularly with my elders on any deep meaningful level. Working alongside both the children and residents has given me so many gifts. I knew intellectually that these differences in age and life experience would be bridged, but to see and experience it firsthand helped me to grow as a person. Here are just a few things I have learned in my time with the residents and children.
It is fun to be 84!
Many of the children enjoy writing letters, birthday or get well cards to the residents. One afternoon when we had stopped in to see Millie and give her a birthday card, one of the children, in their sweet honest way, asked how old Millie was. At first Millie said, “A lady never tells her age,” but after a few moments she said 84. She told the children that “I never thought I would like being 84 but I really do”.
You can still fall in love again at 89.
One of our long time residents of our program, Bina, had been without her husband for many years when Dave moved into the Terrace. I observed their budding friendship evolve into a deep love. Seeing Bina giddy just holding Dave’s hand and how much she cared for him always moved me. She looked after him down to the smallest details such as requesting having a straw for Dave at the tea party because his Parkinson’s made his hands shake and he would have trouble lifting his tea cup without spilling.
Children can teach adults about just accepting people for who they are and what they can do.
The children know we have to talk loudly for Gertie to hear and that we need to make more space and move carefully around Bina when she is using her walker. They know that Mike needs help opening the door to get to the courtyard but he can manage his own wheelchair through the door.
Learning how to say goodbye to someone can be sad but beautiful.
The children begin to learn the great gift of how to say goodbye when a resident passes on. The children learn that when a resident who was close to us passes on that it is a time of remembrance and even joy. We learn that it is ok to miss that person and we can create beautiful rituals to say goodbye and remember them. Rhoda once told us that she knew she would pass on soon but it made her feel good to know that there were special children like us at the Terrace to take her place. When Pearl passed on the children decided they wanted to make a play about her life. We had interviewed her and created a book about her life when she first began working with the children years ago. We gathered together to read her book and some of the extended day children wrote a play, made costumes and performed it for the younger children. Other times when we lose a resident who was close to us we write letters to their family about how special they were, or sew pillows, draw pictures or whatever a child is inspired to do. It is an important aspect that the children are invited but never required to create something to honor the resident, in order to keep the sweet sentiment purely from their heart and hand.
One of my favorite stories was told to me by one of our parents. She told me that her daughter had been scared of their elderly neighbor across the street but after just a few months of school at The Terrace she would go across the street to sing to her. What I truly feel is that to really learn about someone different from yourself you must reach out, be curious and open to others’ beliefs, opinions and life experiences. Staying with only what you know will limit your understanding of all the beauty and sadness of the world around you.
Step out and start small if you need to, like striking up a conversation on the bus. As you get more comfortable, search out other experiences. Volunteer weekly at an organization that interests you, invite a new neighbor to dinner, attend a rally for something you believe in, or when you travel, really try to get to know the community that you are visiting. The opportunities are as endless to meet and learn about new people as how much you can grow and learn about yourself through your interactions with others. I challenge you to ponder the question “How do I handles differences?” and then act on it by giving your time, presence and openness to others.
Pam Bishop, Terrace Guide
Childpeace Montessori School