One of the most beautiful relationships in life is that of a child and his or her grandparent. Unfortunately, many children these days miss out on this special relationship due a diverse range of factors, including distance, and early loss of their grandparents. For nearly 25 years, Merritt Academy in Fairfax, Virginia has provided students with a unique opportunity to develop a special relationship with a “grandfriend” through our Seniors and Students Together Intergenerational Program.
The Intergenerational program was established in fall of 1991 with the purpose of bringing together students (from infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to school-age children) and seniors to form an integrated group promoting the sharing of skills and experiences. The goal of the intergenerational child care program was to foster interaction and socialization between the generations, thus improving the quality of life for both groups. In the years since the program launched, generations of Merritt Academy students have developed meaningful relationships during regular visits to their grandfriends, sometimes spanning the course of several years. “I like going to Sunrise because my grandparents live far away and I don’t get to see them often. The grandfriends I have are like grandparents. They make me feel happy and joyous,” said Merritt 4th grader, Harriet.
Today, our Intergenerational program is thriving, with over 400 students from our child care and preschool programs, as well as our private school (aged six weeks through sixth grade) visiting six different assisted living communities throughout the Northern Virginia area. During their visits, students and seniors participate in a wide variety of activities, including storytelling, sing-a-longs, arts and crafts, literary activities and community service projects. Our students enjoy spending time with their grandfriends, particularly learning about their past personal experiences.
The children are often fascinated as they learn about how the world was different, and what it was like to be a child in an earlier time. In turn, the children breathe happiness and life into the senior communities, sharing their lives and experiences with their special friends. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, as the seniors are reinvigorated by the innocence and joy of the visiting children, while the children learn respect, patience and helpfulness. “I like going to The Jefferson (Assisted Living Community) because it brings a lot of joy and happiness. My grandfriend really likes my visits and when I go and visit him I feel like I am bringing joy and happiness to him. Whenever I go to The Jefferson all I can do is smile and laugh because it brings me joy. If I could visit The Jefferson every day I would!” said Clarissa, a 4th grader.
The Intergenerational program can also be educational for the children, as they learn historical lessons through the first-hand, personal experiences of their grandfriends, like memories of war from decorated veterans. After a visit on Veteran’s Day, several 6th grade students remarked that “it was so much more interesting to talk about Veteran’s Day with people who had actually fought in wars.” In addition to learning from the seniors, the students also enjoy sharing their knowledge with their grandfriends, excitedly relating their newest discoveries to their special friends.
Perhaps most importantly, the intergenerational program teaches children compassion and kindness. Students who grow up with grandfriends are not self-conscious around elders in wheelchairs or walkers, and are more comfortable when they encounter a senior who may act differently due to their advancing physical conditions. They view their grandfriends with reverence, and value their contributions to the past, present and future. During a recent visit, our 4th-6th grade Student Council representatives worked hand-in-hand with senior residents of the Virginian, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Fairfax to assemble “power packs” of nutritious foods and resources for distribution to the less fortunate through Food for Others.
There is no question that Merritt Academy’s intergenerational program is a very special part of our school’s identity and culture, one that we look forward to continuing for many years to come.
Admissions Director At Merritt Academy, Fairfax