My four sons under age seven watched me move my work-from-home office equipment into another room, in preparation to welcome my 65-year-old mother into our home after her upcoming surgery. They asked all the questions you’d expect: “Why is there a bed in your office?” “What’s this weird toy?” (her walker), and “How long does she get to have sleepovers with us?” I replied in the famous words of Peppa Pig’s daddy: “It will take as lonnnng as it takes.” Meanwhile, I was doing mental gymnastics wondering how I’d provide for both my mom and my gaggle of sons effectively, especially since I’ve had the privilege for so long of my mom’s help with childcare and carpooling.
After seeing her post-op in the hospital, I worried about how my kids would react to the sight of their typically involved grandmother in such a state, unable to move much of her body without help and even needing bathroom assistance. My first instinct was to shield them from this recovery process, not wanting them to think something was seriously wrong with the woman who sneaks them to the dollar store for prizes and takes them out to lunch. So, when she came home and was navigating heavy medication, side effects, and pain, I shooed the kids out of her room.
But toddlers have a pesky way of going exactly where they want to go, not where you say. While cooking dinner I heard chatter from her room, where I thought she was resting. My 3-year-old had barged in, woken her from a nap, climbed on top of her lap, and was reading her a story, which she would usually be reading to him. It was both an immediately heartbreaking and heartwarming scene, the roles reversed in just days. My son, with no help from me, had become the caregiver in a sense, providing cuddles and comfort to her recovery process. I had accidentally almost prevented the exact interactions that can be an antidote to loneliness, which seniors chronically experience.
From that moment on I knew this was an opportunity, not something to shield them from. I became curious about the benefits of actually fully exposing them to the truth of the situation, both for the kids and my mom, so I reached out to others who have encountered this. Jennifer Prescott, RN, MSN, CDP, and Founder and COO of Blue Water Homecare and Hospice, is living the “sandwich generation” life, caring for both her four children and her mother-in-law with dementia, who lives with her. She has seen firsthand the benefits of including children in care, rather than pushing them away.
“Children have a warm and infectious spirit that draws everyone into their world. They inspire seniors to learn new skills, be active and share stories,” she says. She also emphasizes that children witnessing the aging process is a normal and beneficial “intergenerational engagement.” Basically, the circle of life was happening right there in my former office, and my kids almost missed the chance to learn about it.
Children see how their parents care for seniors and learn from their behavior. The fears of aging can be resolved when children have intergenerational engagement and can see how they can impact lives outside of their own,” Prescott says.
So the next time my mom needed to be escorted to the bathroom, I took a beat. A kid jumped up and cleared toys out of her path, hanging on to the walker to make sure it didn’t slide. They waited outside the door, walked her back, and tucked her into bed. My 3-year-old aged a decade that day, it seemed, but really didn’t — he had it in him all along, and I was the one shielding him from an epic learning opportunity. He came to me after that bathroom trip, beaming with pride, and told me he “handled it.” According to the Center for Aging Research and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing, my kids were briefly seeing a benefit of intergenerational living — “increased empathy and mood management.”
My mom’s needs and presence had the largely unexpected side effect of turning my little narcissists into compassionate caregiving angels. Throughout the course of the week, each of my kids had moments where they had to set their own needs aside for my mom’s. I originally thought this would make them feel neglected, or unseen, but it turned out to be exactly what they needed.
The focus shifted from their immediate wants to acting as a team to help her recover. My 7-year-old stopped asking to play with friends for a few days, making snack plates (including a mini marshmallow-topped salad) and showing her baseball gear. My 5-year-old sat drawing next to her, dictating his every marker stroke, helping her mind stay active and motivated as she too is an artist. The baby laid on her lap chomping teething crackers, happy to chill. Their requests — “Mom, where's my backpack?” and “The dog is eating my gloves!” and “Where are all the pink straws?” — came to a grinding halt. They weren’t neglected, they were focused on caring for someone else, who spent much of her time caring for them. As Prescott says, “By caring for others, they learn how their actions impact lives other than their own.”
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.
Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.