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

How We Change As We Age


What's it like to grow old?   How do your body and mind change?   These are important questions to consider as you embark on making a new grandfriend.

To become an effective grandfriend you'll need to develop an understanding for what your elder partner is living through. This is called "empathy." You'll bond more quickly with your senior friend once you take a moment to think about what you might be like when you become a senior citizen.

In this chapter you'll learn what it is like to live with some of the impairments associated with aging such as reduced vision or difficulty in walking. In addition to reading, you'll experience what a disability might be like using what are called "simulations." Afterward, you'll reflect upon how these physical changes could affect your outlook or attitude.

When you try to walk (or wheel) in your Grandfriend's shoes, you'll understand better why he or she tires easily or may sometimes seem distant or distracted. As you know from health classes, your mental and physical health affect one another. The stories of Enrico and Thelma illustrate how attitude is linked to one's physical condition.


Enrico used to really enjoy getting out on the weekends. He loved to dance. But, as he reached age 72, he found that his arthritis made it more and more difficult to take pleasure in doing Latin dances with his wife, Betty. In the past, the couple had won many dance contests for their Samba and Tango performances.

Pretty soon, Enrico had many reasons for not going out. "I have a headache," "I need to call our son," or "I want to plan our weekend menu and then go shopping for food." As Betty had suspected, Enrico just couldn't face the pain in his joints. She knew that the pain became worse after he danced.

Enrico could still get around if he moved slowly, but he couldn't stand to sit and just listen to the Latin rhythms without feeling a sense of loss. Enrico withdrew further into himself. He spent more and more hours in his bedroom looking over the old scrapbooks which held his dance awards and the newspaper clippings advertising the dance studio they once owned. He became cranky and Betty found it easier to stay out of his way.

But after awhile, it got to Betty. She knew that she didn't want to live like this in her later years. She decided to confront him, but before she did, Betty talked to her friends who volunteered at the local RSVP office. Betty knew that most of these people remained active even though they took pills for various pains. They had found a way to cope with the aches and pains that often come with aging. One of the volunteers, Lou, pulled a tattered, well-read book from the shelf about retirement and aging. "Ah, here it is, Betty." he found the passage, "Mr. Chapman had a great way of saying it, When you're too old to Tango, then try the Waltz."

Betty knew what he meant. If she could just get Enrico out to a dance, any dance, and get him involved, even as judge or assistant, she knew things would be different. "It's all about making compromises," she said to Lou. Betty sat quietly, thinking deeply. Then the words just flowed out in one giant thought: "When we were young we had to beg for rides to the dance hall downtown. We always negotiated, made compromises. Now that we're older, many of us need to ask for rides again. Life is one big process of adjustment. We can still enjoy the dance competition, even if we don't Tango."

Thelma was very different from Enrico. She had been quite a serious person in her youth, planning her life almost hour by hour, day after day. Looking back she laughs and quips, " I used to be one of those people who never went anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat, a can of mace, an emergency phone list-even a parachute, if I could fit it into my bag. I was always thinking in terms of my obligations and responsibilities. I put everyone else first as I sacrificed for my family and my husband."

But not anymore. Thelma looks you straight in the eye and says, "These days I only have to take care of me. And I'm not afraid to ask others to adjust to my needs at this point in life. When my grandchildren visit, I tire easily; so I tell them to come often, but only stay for 30 minutes." Her eyes light up as she sums up her new philosophy, "When I had to move into this old wheelchair I made a choice. I stopped complaining about my life, stopped planning it to death, and started living it instead. Now I take each day as it comes, one at a time."

Everyone in the nursing home loves Thelma, whom they refer to affectionately as "Madame Eccentric." She has become more adventuresome and often plainly speaks her mind. She seems to care less and less what others think. Instead of seeking people's approval, she wants to be respected for who she is. When asked about her greatest accomplishment, she snapped back, "Waking up every day and seeing the sky overhead-instead of dirt!"

While she can't do all the things she used to do, she carefully picks activities she can still enjoy. Instead of going out for movies, a young friend brings her old movie classics on videotape. Thelma eats Sunday lunch downtown when she can get a ride, and has enrolled in a physical exercise and dance class designed for people in wheelchairs. She has learned to cope by laughing at herself. When she forgot her dental appointment she didn't say, "Oh poor me, my memory is fading." Instead, the day before her next appointment, she wrapped dental floss around her finger to remind herself of the meeting. Everyone laughed but she didn't forget.

On special days, Thelma will ask her volunteer companion to decorate her wheelchair with streamers, ribbons, and balloons. When she gets tired, she retires to her room just to think. She also enjoys writing in her journal. The last journal entry she wrote concluded with the following lines:
Lord, if you gave me another 70 years I'd live it a lot sillier. I'd limber up, relax more. I would take more chances. I would go to the circus and try on clown make-up, visit a nudist beach, go rock climbing. I would break more rules and customs. I'd be a rebel.

You know, dear diary, I really don't take too much too seriously these days.

By doing more with the time I have, I would probably experience fewer imaginary problems. By taking risks I'd become stronger and better able to handle my real problems and pains.
How will you react to your own aging? How will you cope with a loss of vision or hearing or even memory? How will these conditions affect your attitude? Will you be frustrated like Enrico or will you find a way to cope like Betty? Will you become a "character" like Thelma?


As you know, age often slows people down, dims the sight, dampens the hearing, or their ability to get around becomes more difficult. Some people lose more than their sense of sight, hearing, and taste. Some will also lose their sense of reality. This condition is often associated with Alzheimer's Disease.

Many people also lose their ability to remember details. However, you can help strengthen their memory when you ask them questions about their past. To help someone get started thinking about the past professionals in nursing homes use what is called a multi-sensory approach. For example, a person specializing in Therapeutic Recreation often plays music for people to help them remember what happened in their youth. Why do you think music is such a powerful trigger for memory?

As a result of mental and physical changes, people may chose to move out of their own home and live in a facility or apartment which provides some assistance. Others may also have to consider the pluses and minuses of living in a nursing home. For instance, moving into a care facility might require giving up a cherished pet, living in a much smaller space, and losing one's privacy. If it results in moving away from friends and family, then an additional loss will be experienced. One can see how leaving one's home is very upsetting. Moving later in life (or at any age) means leaving behind the comfortable and familiar things in life, and entering an unknown and perhaps worrisome future.

Thelma believed that the only thing she had to fear was the loss of her sense of humor and sense of pride. She knew that these two qualities made life worth living for her. Thelma consciously chose to be more adventuresome, more eccentric, more herself. Perhaps she was trying to squeeze out the negative thoughts and fears, and in this way leave only room inside for laughter and silliness.

In the end, most of us will face having to cope with some physical disabilities as we grow older. If a person only dwells on what he or she has lost, then he or she will lower their expectations, and give in to negative attitudes. The key seems to be in accepting the fact that age brings certain difficulties as well as some new opportunities. Many people adjust to these changes by entering a period where they are mourning. They grieve their losses: friends, physical abilities, memory, income.

It's Not All Downhill

It is important to recognize that age also brings with it many gifts. It is not all a downhill ride. In most people, mental capacity does not diminish with age. Learning or reaction time slows down, but the capacity to learn is still there. Unlike a young person learning everything from scratch, an older person draws from a wealth of prior knowledge and experience. This advantage makes learning easier in some ways for seniors.

As the physical abilities decline, wisdom and an inner light shine more brightly. Age does not have to be a cage. It can be a time to relax, kick back, or explore hobbies and make new friends. Instead of worrying about a career and how much money you earn, it can be a time for finding pleasure in sharing your wisdom with others and freedom of just being yourself…like Thelma and the other people described in Chapter 1.

The good news is that older people are living healthier, and living longer. In the 1990s, there are over 50,000 people who have reached the age of 100! And out of 100 people over 65 only 5 need the assistance of a nursing home. The other 95 people are leading active and independent lives. In fact, some people have produced their greatest works when they were over 65. In the book, Portraits of Passion, the author records the stories of artists, painters, conductors, writers, cartoonists, scientists, mayors, and psychologists who are very active and creative well past their 60s. Think about all the older people you enjoy being around. They laugh, they tell great stories, they have a real passion for living.


What age would you like to reach? What attitude will you have about life when you're over 65? You may not have an answer to this right now, but you can begin to see what it feels like to cope with some of the physical losses people experience as they grow older. You have to remember that your goal is not to have pity for older people but rather to develop an understanding or empathy for their stage of life.

Each age, each phase in life has it's own unique qualities, challenges, and adventures. The poet Longfellow tried to describe the aging process as a time where wisdom and insight are gained as we lose our youthful capacities. He wrote:
For age is opportunity, no less
than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as evening twilight fades away
the sky is filled with stars invisible by day.
In Assignment #2-Aging Simulations you'll see what it feels like to read with limited vision, eat with a reduced sense of taste, walk with pain, and write a short note with less than your usual agility or coordination. After this aging simulation, you'll review how you handled each situation, each "loss." You can then compare yourself with Enrico and Thelma.

After thinking about grandfriends and aging, and after visiting a nursing home or care facility, it's time to prepare for the specific skills you'll need for working with grandfriends on an on-going basis. Chapter 3 contains common rules, regulations and precautions taken by care workers who serve our elder citizens.

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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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