Careth Reid has hiked mountains from Peru to Nepal, bicycled from northern Scotland to southern England, and ridden a camel in the Sahara. She was named Alumna of the Year by her alma mater and has been called "a creative genius" by child-care experts.
But like many older people, the grandmother felt at times like an unemployable failure. After her 31-year marriage dissolved when she was in her 50s, no one would hire her. Her master's degree and nine years of experience running a home for emotionally disturbed teenage girls seemed not to matter. "I felt old, unwanted, and abandoned by my husband and children," she says.
That was until the Whitney Young Child Development Center, in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, responded to her job application two months after she applied. Mrs. Reid (as she prefers to be called) dyed her long gray hair dark brown to disguise her age and went to the interview. She got the executive director's job at the day-care center, and she worked there for nearly 20 years until she retired at age 70.
Reid took a disintegrating child-care program and turned it into an international model that takes care of nearly 400 children a day. And after nearly two decades as director, she still worked superwoman hours, seven days a week. San Francisco State University has named her Alumna of the Year.
Of course, a journey like Reid's doesn't happen overnight. She initially saw the job as a comedown. After all, she had been to law school and had a master's degree in social science. But a rainbow group of poor, rich, and severely disabled kids -- and a team of committed teachers -- taught her the work's value. The kids in particular assuaged her feelings of loneliness and abandonment. They got down on the floor and played jacks with her. They listened and learned. They encouraged her to seek challenges in the way that children are challenged every day.
"In this position," Reid said at the time, "I don't feel lonely. I feel very powerful -- and I have gotten back my self-esteem."
A growing number of seniors are being encouraged to work with young children. Increasingly, teachers are bringing older volunteers and children together to work on everything from story reading to arts and sports in a way that teaches and invigorates both. Children get the advantage of the older person's skills and wisdom; seniors can reap the joy and exuberance that comes from being around kids.
Playing can keep you young
With the right combination of personality and verve, the old and the very young can work beautifully together, according to a digest of educational studies summarized by the Educational Resources Information Center in Washington, DC.
Careful screening is crucial, according to the "Senior Citizens as School Volunteers'' reports. Among other things, a potential volunteer's health, physical limitations, and attitude towards students should be taken into consideration. The right match can produce health benefits to both children and seniors, according to the late Professor William Satariano, professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley.
"A growing body of research suggest that the 'successful agers' are the ones who have social ties with others," Satariano told us while he was still at UC Berkeley. And children, he says, "certainly benefit by being mentored and nurtured by older people." Satariano is particularly impressed with a 200-year-old passage from a letter that James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "The web of mutual obligations between generations is essential for a civilized society." "I really feel that Madison put his finger on it," Satariano says.
In Berkeley, across the bay from Reid's day-care centers (the one she took over has grown to four), Satariano helped plan an elementary-school program that would bring seniors and children together on a regular basis, perhaps to read, play games, or do meditative exercise. And not far from there, in the nearby town of Kensington, Julie Daigle, director of the Growing Light Montessori Preschool, dreams of opening an intergenerational preschool that would rely on the talents of older people.
Daigle knows from personal experience that those talents are formidable. Daigle and three of her eight siblings were raised by an older farm couple in Maine, after their biological mother left them in a foster home so she could follow their absent father. Daigle's foster parents were in their late 50s when she was a baby. The couple raised Daigle, her siblings and 11 other children until they were well into their 70s. From her senior-citizen parents, Daigle learned about old-fashioned things like music from the 1920s, yoking horses, and canning food. "History was being reenacted," Daigle says. "Seniors live what they've learned. They can teach kids to weave a basket, make bread, sew, because they know how. They teach patience." The kids, in turn, learn "tolerance and acceptance of older people," she says. "They learn respect."
Childcare's not for everyone
Of course, not all seniors are crazy about working with kids. Although Reid was so committed to her job that she worked as many as 20 hours a day on occasion, not all of the center's senior volunteers have shared her enthusiasm. Many of the older volunteers walked in to the center, sat down and never got up, she says. They looked at the kids as if they were odd and grubby. Some seniors have reached a certain level of competency, Reid says, and they're reluctant to risk doing new things that might make them look stupid.
"I know tons of old retired people, especially retired bureaucrats, who sit around wearing the same haircut they got the night they retired,'' she said. "I didn't want sedentary adults in the classroom where I was trying to teach kids to be active. Children need models who show them life is fun."
For Reid, it was the children who reminded her that life is fun. And she followed their example. For her 69th birthday, she got kayak and bicycle racks for her Jeep. Later on, she took her youngest grandson, Brian, on a camel safari across the Sahara for his eighth birthday. A bunch of little kids, so poor they wore sandals made from tires, ran 20 miles across the desert to meet this young African American tourist and to give him gifts of spangled scarves.
"You don't get a lot of sympathy as you age. But children are a little less judgmental -- and you can get away with a lot more if you're funny," Reid said. "In this little encapsulated space," she said about her day-care center, "I was Queen of the Mound."
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