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Nurturing the fragile ties between generations

/ Source: The Associated Press

Bethany Salomon knows her 77-year-old mother wants to spend time with the youngest members of their family.

So Salomon does what she can to ensure that Mary Chaitoff is prepared when her 5-year-old great-granddaughter, Macaela Salomon, comes to visit. The two women bought special toys for Macaela to keep at Chaitoff's Pepper Pike, Ohio, home. They look for television shows or videos they can enjoy together. And they plan day trips to Cleveland to visit museums.

"There's a very strong bond," said Salomon, 57, of Pepper Pike. "They have their own set of things they do together. They learn from one another. They modify themselves for one another."

With Americans living longer than ever before, many children now have the opportunity to know their great-grandparents. It's a relationship, however, that other family members can help along; the very young and the very old often are wary of each other. Great-grandparents may worry that youngsters will break something or disrupt their household. Children might be put off by an older person's wheelchair, smell or frailness.

Grandparents and parents can be a good go-between. With a bit of planning, it's possible to make the encounters enjoyable for everyone.

Chaitoff, a relatively young great-grandmother, said spending time with Macaela has revitalized her and her husband, Harold, who are retired.

"I feel like we've emerged," she said. "We're back to feeling like we're doing something worthwhile. But we're getting more than we're giving."

Children have just as much to gain, said Susan Bosak, director of the Legacy Project, an online resource for families looking to build generational bonds.

"These relationships give you something you can't get any place else," said Bosak, who writes about the grandparent bond in her latest book, "The Little Something" (TCP Press, March 2008). "Children have a better sense of who they are."

Planning helps foster good feelings

Before getting the oldest and youngest generations together, engage in some "casual planning," recommended Robin Hewitt, who wrote "The Joyous Gift of Grandparenting" with her husband, Doug.

Having a few activities ready will give the visit some structure and keep children from getting restless.

The schedule might include playing video games, looking at old photos or giving everyone a disposable camera to take family portraits. Don't worry if the great-grandparents have never picked up a joystick. The kids will be excited to show them how to play. Then let the great-grandparents teach everyone a card game.

When the youngest and oldest members of the family exchange knowledge, it builds respect and affection.

Ask children to demonstrate a few ballet steps, perform a gymnastics routine or recite their multiplication tables, said Doug Hewitt, of Mayodan, N.C.

"Kids love to show off," he said. "Praise them, no matter how they do."

Talk about the past — and the future

The Hewitts also encourage families to foster conversation by having great-grandparents tell stories and encouraging them to ask youngsters open-ended questions. Tell great-grandparents about the kids' activities, school assignments and friends' names before the visit, suggested Brian Wolf of Andover, Minn., who gives seminars under the nickname "The Grandparent Coach."

"If great-grandma was calling to ask me what I ran in my high hurdle race, I'd love to talk about that," he said.

Help great-grandparents reinforce what they have in common with children, he added. If the child is upset about an error made on the ballfield, ask the great-grandparents about the time they might have lost the big game.

"It creates common denominators," he said. It says, "I am like you."

Wolf also advises great-grandparents to pick one skill or interest that they'd like to pass on to the younger generations.

"Make your wishes known," he said. "Say, 'I'm the grandma in charge of teaching the kids how to cook, bake or use the computer.'"

Quiet activities are OK, too

Even great-grandparents who are less active can contribute, said Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, founder and director of the Foundation for Grandparenting. Encourage quiet activities such as reading, cuddling or back rubbing.

"Just to be with them and feel their wonderful warmth is extremely nourishing" for children, he said from his home in Ojai, Calif.

When possible, bring great-grandparents to the school play or the soccer game. Their presence lets children know they are loved.

"They don't have to do anything but sit and watch," he said.