Intergenerational Index
The Grandfriends Project -- A Program Creating Friendships Across the Generations Martin Kimeldorf, the author

Basic Training


This chapter is the Grandfriend Boot Camp; it's where your basic training begins. As a result, it is one of the longest chapters in the book because so many things need to be covered. The personal stories in this chapter come from the personal experiences of the author and his students. These stories illustrate both the benefits and challenges which come when you work with older people.

Hopefully, you'll realize that working with senior citizens is like anything else, it varies with the group you work with. The worksheet assignment at the end of this chapter gives you a chance to express your thoughts about working with older people.

Before you go on your first (or next) visit there are many things to prepare. This usually includes planning your dress or appearance, going over the routes and routines and turning in forms for off-campus visits. You may also receive some additional specialized training at the site you visit.

The best training often uses a story to get across a message. Hopefully the stories in this book will trigger some of your own memories or ignite within you the desire to meet older people who can help you on your journey toward adulthood. You may also want to share some of your own stories. The stories in this first chapter come from the author's personal experience.


I'm sure my life would have turned out a bit different had it not been for experiences I shared with four older people: Alex, Ruth, Sam and Esther. My Uncle Alex had a wire-brush mustache which tickled me crazy when he planted a kiss on the back of my six-year-old neck. Luckily, as I grew older, we moved towards exchanging handshakes and hugs-but I still kept my eye on his graying mustache. He always wanted to know how I was doing in school. He was especially pleased if I sent him my drawings or writings. He was the first person who told me that he thought I was talented. I felt that he was the first person (besides my parents) who believed in me.

Later, as I became more involved in writing poetry and doing oil painting I found I could trust him to give me an honest opinion of my work. Sure, he always began by telling me how much he liked my work, but he was also critical and offered excellent advice. You see, my uncle was a talented artist and writer himself.

When I graduated from school he asked me if I wanted to come out to the Big Apple (New York City) where I could stay, find a job and meet some of his artist friends. I took him up on the offer. It was exhilarating, working in that huge city of lights and action, meeting painters, musicians, playwrights and poets. Late at night, he and I debated endlessly about politics, art, and sports. No matter how heated the conversation, he always ended with a hug, which brought me dangerously close to the mustache. I miss my uncle and wish I could show him this book. He would have liked it.

When I was in college I lived in an apartment beneath Ruth who was in her 80s. She had been a librarian and an expert on children's literature. When I was trying to decide if I should stay in college or not, become a teacher or not, she took me in for long chats. On those unending Pacific Northwest rain-soaked days we sipped tea, and I could pour out to her my dreams and frustrations. Ruth listened very intently. Then she'd scurry to her bookshelf and pull out a story to read aloud which would give me hope. She invited me to read some of my stories and poems and eventually, asked me if I wanted to have some of my poems included in one of her books. Here was another person who also believed in me. You can't imagine how inspiring that felt. I think my friendship with her is the reason I stuck out completing college at a time when I found it very hard to concentrate on my studies. I remember when she sent me her last book just before she died. The inscription read, "For a friend with special gifts. I hope you will continue to share."

I was probably around eight when I first went fishing with my dad. It was often very trying as I got several hooks caught in my clothing and snagged several lures on under-water stumps. I knew fishing could be different and I knew Sam was the person who could show me the "tricks of the trade." Sam lived in Oregon where he enjoyed a reputation for being a great fisherman. Sam often went out early to the Rogue River to catch his "limit." When everyone else was having a hard time catching a nibble, Sam would be catching fish. He was someone I looked up to. Naturally, I was delighted when Sam offered to take me on a fishing trip because I knew he'd teach me the secrets of becoming a great fisherman.

I'll never forget that cold and windy morning with the sun dancing across the choppy, ice-gray waters. My frozen fingers fumbled about trying to assemble my fishing rod. Sam showed me how to rub the end of the fishing pole against the oily part of your face and presto, the two parts of the fishing rod slid easily together. Wow, if he could make this basic task simpler, I knew I was going to have a great fishing trip! Sam died of a heart attack but his memories of fishing and the stories he told about World War I will stay with me forever.

Esther, Sam's wife, lived in my favorite Portland neighborhood. She always wore an apron caked with flour and sugar, sprinkled with cinnamon and smeared with butter. She spent hours cooking main dishes, baking pastries, and canning fruits or vegetables. She had been brought up on a farm where people made much of the food themselves. To this day I still remember the dill pickles she fermented in her unique brine. My mouth waters and puckers just thinking about them. Going down into her basement cellar, I felt as if I was standing in a temple built to honor food.

I recall the first day Esther greeted me with her invitation: "My kitchen door is always open. I love company when I cook." I didn't need to be asked twice. My mouth still waters when I think back to the day when she showed me the secret of her double-chocolate cake. Instead of making the frosting from a mix, she combined two huge Hershey chocolate bars with a few other "secret" ingredients to make a cake that went beyond anything I had ever tasted! Esther eventually went into a nursing home which I used to visit whenever I stayed in Portland.

Do you still have a grandparent or older person who plays an important role in your life? If you do, you probably enjoy spending time together. Do you enjoy listening to their stories, getting advice, or hearing their words of encouragement? Do they ask questions, are they interested in how you are doing in school or in general? Do they send you cards when others might forget? Do you find that sometimes they are easier to talk to than your own family or peer group? There's something comforting in having a grandfriend.

Visiting With Grandfriends

When just about everyone worked on a farm or lived in large families, it was very common to see many generations sharing their lives under the same roof. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, even elderly neighbors often came to live with you. But all that has changed. These days, as people grow up and leave home, they find they are living far apart from their families. It is not unusual to live most of your life far away from older relatives. However, you can still have a grandfriend right where you live if you take the time to visit people living in nursing homes, retirement homes or communities, or just about any place where older people gather such as the local senior (or community) centers.

Have you ever visited a nursing home or care facility? Do you remember what it was like?

When I was young, I remember visiting my grandmother after she moved into a nursing home. Residents lived in little rooms with only a bed and a bureau. She usually had a roommate. They all ate meals in a cafeteria. This was hard for her because my grandmother once lived independently in a large home, where she rented out rooms to boarders. The nursing home world was small, calm, and regulated like a school. Times were scheduled for eating, visiting, and bathing. She couldn't cook, and people weren't allowed to have pets. She was living there not by choice, but due to declining health. Her vision was almost gone, and she couldn't remember details very well. In fact, on many visits she wasn't sure how old I was and she sometimes confused me with my brothers. Even with all of these disabilities, she still enjoyed having visitors.

She liked to talk about the past when she lived in Russia. As a child, I sat wide-eyed and respectfully silent as she described how the Cossacks stormed through the streets on horseback, their stinging leather whips lashing out at peasants in the marketplace. The stories were told with convincing detail, and she told each story as if she was sharing a secret. Maybe it was the twinkle in her eyes or the ever so slight grin; but listening to the stories was like watching a movie. Before I left, she'd call me over to her bed and push a silver dollar into my hand. My mother said we shouldn't take the money because grandma was really quite poor. But I knew that grandma would never tolerate a "No, thank-you" from me. Those visits stirred something deep inside. I left with a lot more than a dollar.

If you were asked to define the term grandfriend, what would you say the term meant to you after hearing these stories? In the Grandfriends Project you'll have a chance to make new friends with people from a different generation. What do you think your grandfriend will get out of your visits? And equally important, how do you think you will benefit from this experience?

The Benefits Of Having A Grandfriend

Several students report that initially, they join a Grandfriends Project because they are bored, or because it's a chance to get out of class. Later, they'll tell you that a visit to a grandfriend is like a magic tonic, it changes one's attitude. One student said that she was often depressed except on those days when she visited her grandfriend.

Ellen used to get into the van, head for a back seat, and not speak a word as we drove to the nursing home. Later in her journal she wrote: "I'd go in sad, but I always left happier than when I went in. Visiting with other people takes the stress off of me. I stop thinking and worrying about myself because I have to think about this other person, her life, how she copes with difficulty, and what makes her happy or sad." At the end of the project, Ellen concluded that by helping others she was really helping herself to feel better.

Many residents in these facilities get to see their families only around holidays. That's a long time between visits. Loneliness is one of the biggest hardships many residents face. Your willingness to visit and show interest in another person makes you a special person. Maybe you'll feel the same way as Ellen when she said, "Sometimes it just feels good to help out."

A student in another Grandfriends Project said he liked to visit the retirement homes because the people he met reminded him of his grandparents. His grandfather had died two years before and his grandmother had developed Alzheimer's Disease. As a result, Brian found it difficult to visit his grandmother because she never seemed to make sense or know who he was. But when he visited Isadora in the retirement home it was different. Isadora often invited him to her apartment for cookies or ice cream. She began each visit with the same question, "How is your week going, strong or weak?" It was a corny line, but he liked being asked. They laughed and chatted away the hour. The visits reminded him of the good times he used to share with his real grandparents.


As you get ready for your first visit to a care facility or nursing home you'll probably have a few questions or feel some anxiety (unless you've been there before). This is natural. It's really hard to describe what you'll see and experience because nursing homes and care facilities are changing all the time these days. They are becoming more attractive and interesting places to visit.

Thirty or more years ago, this was not the case. In the past, many nursing homes were places where people received only minimal care when they could no longer live on their own. Without much money, or government support and regulation, many nursing homes were unhappy or dreary places. People were fed in large impersonal areas and their bedding was changed once a day. If someone had an accident because they didn't get to the bathroom in time, they simply had to sit in their soiled clothing and wait until a staff member was free. This is why many care institutions often had an unpleasant odor. The day-to- day routine in these dimly-lit institutions was fairly monotonous. The day began by helping the residents move from the bed to the wheelchair. After breakfast they were rolled into long hallways or "day rooms" where they sat all day. The hours dragged on slowly until the next meal. The cycle of sleeping--eating--waiting was repeated day in and day out. No wonder few people visited. There are still some nursing homes around from this era, but just about all of them are trying to modernize and improve their programs.

Today we know that this "warehousing" of older people in the corridors of neglect is a tragic mistake. Today much more care and concern is being shown our older citizens. Senior citizens are no longer the most neglected and poorest of our society thanks to Medicare, Medicaid, and community members like you who become volunteers or grandfriends.

With new funding sources and improved government regulations, care facilities are definitely changing. Large nursing homes are being replaced by smaller places providing more specialized and personalized care. These new facilities are brightly colored and the rooms are more like apartments with small cooking areas. New staff has been added. You will often find someone assigned to the job of Activity Coordinator. This coordinator is usually hired to bring in speakers, singers, and entertainers. The coordinator also organizes trips to town for shopping, seeing the sites, and attending special events. The facility might also hire a Volunteer Coordinator to work with individuals who want to come in and help. At holidays, volunteers might come in and decorate the dining room area or organize a Halloween or Valentine's Day party. Other volunteers assist in running Bingo games, feeding people, writing letters, or simply visiting.

Currently programs serving seniors can be divided roughly into three levels of care described by the terms: independent, assisted living, and nursing home. Programs designed for people on the independent level allow the person to live in his or her own home or apartment. Individuals often enjoy cooking some of their own meals, and are generally able to get around town on their own. Programs for independent residents may be organized through local community agencies or senior centers.

Other older people find they can get along fine with some assistance. These folk often choose to live in an assisted living facility. They typically rent their own apartment where they may get help with dressing, bathroom needs, medicines, transportation, or other activities we associate with daily living. While they might do a small amount of cooking, typically snacks or a single meal, the facility often provides most of their meals.

If a person can no longer take care of him or herself, stays in bed for longer periods of time, needs a great deal of medical attention, due to illness or accidents or a chronic disability. If a person has severe Alzheimer's Disease this can cause forgetfulness and confusion. He or she may be unsafe on their own. At this point the individual may need the more intense care found in a nursing home. Of course, only a small percentage of the old-old part of our population needs this kind of intense care.

You could find yourself volunteering in a place where only one level of service is provided. However, care facilities are increasingly offering more than one level of care. Some facilities just provide apartments or homes for people in the independent level, plus staff to carry out assisted care services, such as a nurse or activities coordinator. Today, you'll find entire "communities" set up to provide all three levels of living.

It is important to note that only a small percentage of the people over 60 live in a nursing home level. In fact, most older Americans live on their own and take care of themselves. Some older people also enjoy helping out or taking care of others by volunteering in organizations such as the Retired Senior Volunteer Persons (RSVP). These active volunteers work in schools, parks, nursing homes, community centers, and various agencies. Don't be surprised if you find an RSVP volunteer working alongside you in the nursing home.

Ageism and Stereotypes

One of the things you'll discover in this program is that you may have many stereotypes about older people. Many young people and adults lump together anyone over 55 or 60 years of age into a general category of old. Do you recall the stereotypes you associate with being old? Does it include things like being crabby, driving too slow, being frail? Stereotyping older people in this way reflects the "ageism" prevalent in our society.

Ageism is like racism, we end up discriminating and making generalizations or stereotypes about all old people. As a result, we consciously or unconsciously end up assuming that all old people act alike. We lose track of each individual's unique qualities. But, generalizations about old people don't hold up any more than stereotypes about teens. As a young adult, you probably hate to hear generalizations about your generation. Aren't you tired of everyone saying that teens are lazy, discourteous, involved in violence or drugs? Generalizations and stereotypes hurt everyone. The topic of ageism is covered in greater detail in later chapters.

Likewise, we can't generalize and say that every person you meet in a nursing home or care facility is as interesting, helpful, and cheerful as the elders described in the earlier stories. Some people are very lonely. Others wake up every day with a lot of pain. Still others are disoriented or depressed. When the pain in their joints feels like a pliers pinching them, they'll scream, call out, or even shout obscenities. If a person hasn't had a visitor in a long, long time she might become depressed and lose interest in everything. You may see people who only sit and stare, hardly communicating at all.

Naturally, as a member of the Grandfriends Project, you'll try to be friendly to everyone you meet. After all, you just might make a difference. However, if someone is acting angry or abusive, you are not responsible for their behavior. It is best to simply ignore these people when they are venting their feelings or acting out in inappropriate ways. Just like you do at school or at home, ignore the behaviors and remind yourself that the inappropriate acts are not really directed at you. If ignoring doesn't work, then ask a staff member for advice. If someone is using abusive language you can gently remind them about respectful behavior by saying, "I don't use that language."

It takes a special courage and understanding to be a grandfriend. After all, you're stepping outside your normal circle of friends. You're taking a risk to be with people different from yourself, people with a different vocabulary, value system, or outlook. You're visiting a place where many young people, even adults your parent's age, don't often go. You will learn things which just can't be taught in books or classrooms. What you experience now will definitely be useful in later life as your parents grow older and as you age yourself. After participating in the Grandfriends Project, some students may decide on a career in the geriatric care field. Just about everyone feels he or she profits from the experience.


Now would be a good time to stop and think about all the ideas discussed in this chapter:

Take a look at the brochure describing the facilities or program you'll be visiting. Let all your thoughts and feelings simmer for awhile in this grandfriend stew. Then ask questions.

To help in the process of summing up your thoughts you'll be asked to complete Assignment #1-The Nursing Home Experience and Young Seniors. This worksheet will follow. You may be asked to complete it on your own or with others. You may also be asked to share some your thoughts in a group discussion.

FORMS, Forms, forms

In most programs you'll need permission forms in order to participate in community sites. It will be helpful if you make sure you have all the forms signed and ask any questions about what is expected of you in the Grandfriends Project.

Putting Our Best Foot Forward

After you find out when your first (or next) visit is scheduled, consider the kinds of clothing you'll wear. Remember that you go as a representative of your school. How will you honor or show respect for the people you are going to meet? Also, what do you think you could wear that will most impress the staff and seniors people you'll meet next? (Alternately, you could make a list of things not to wear or styles that may be offensive).

In the next chapter you'll learn about some of the changes we experience as we age. You'll actually have an experience or two which will help make this clear. These are called "simulations."

Intergenerational Index   next page arrow

Martin Kimeldorf,
© 1999
All Rights Reserved.
Amby Duncan-Carr,
page designer
Material from both THE GRANDFRIENDS PROJECT, A Program Creating Friendships Across The Generations and the companion piece, PROJECT LEADER'S GUIDE FOR THE GRANDFRIENDS PROJECT, A Program Creating Friendships Across The Generations is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher, Fairview Press. Printing or downloading a single copy of this document for personal use is permitted; teachers may reproduce this document for use in a single classroom, only. Transmission in any form or further duplication is prohibited without the express written consent of the author. In addition, any use of the document code, itself, requires the written permission of the web page designer.

Kimeldorf Bibliography
Amby's Resources
Kimeldorf Autobiography

© 1999   Amby Duncan-Carr   All Rights Reserved.

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