When British mother Jo Hayes found herself on the other side of the world with no family support, all she wished for was “a New Zealand Mum”.
Instead, she struck up a friendship with a grandmother at her daughter’s daycare.
“She agreed to ‘adopt’ us and now she is our Granny Susan. Other friends started talking about how they wanted something similar and so an idea was born.”
Hayes founded the charity Surrogate Grandparents NZ, a sort of “dating service” for families and grandparents, she joked.
“We connect families with surrogate grandparents, and vice versa. It’s about building communities and connections.”
She said seniors gained a sense of purpose in what can be an isolated and lonely time of life.
“They have so much love to give and have time on their hands. This allows them to give that love, pass on their skills in a meaningful and purposeful way.”
She said strong relationships had grown between ‘adopted’ grandparents and children.
“You can really become something like an extended family. It is a really special relationship.”
Clinical psychologist Joanna Macfarlane said these days there were less opportunities for younger and older people to interact.
Her research found intergenerational relationships gave elderly people a “sense of life”, she said.
“For older people, it’s the time when their role in society is decreasing – they aren’t a worker or a mother anymore necessarily. This gives them a role, it gives them purpose.”
During her research, she spent time analysing the iPLAYED programme; a relationship between a retirement village and an early childhood centre that share the same site.
“A lot older people don’t see or have any contact with younger children, some have a real fear of being ‘closed in’. Just seeing children made them feel connected.”
She said the importance of physical touch for the elderly residents was a surprising find.
“The ability to touch the children — to hold their hands or cuddle the babies — that came up a lot. It made them feel connected.”
iPLAYCED co-ordinator Jackie Colley said the programme started out as buddy reading, but had grown to include arts and crafts, swimming, and music sessions.
“Some of our residents don’t have family nearby and they really miss those connections with our younger people.”
Art and craft organiser Aditi Arora said the session was run in the hospital ward, which often meant residents simply observed.
“Even if they can’t physically take part, they all really look forward to it. They get so much enjoyment watching and talking with the children.”
Music therapy organiser Gail Mahoney agreed.
“If they aren’t coming along to the session, they have their door open to catch a glimpse. Their faces just light up when the children arrive.”
Kuddles In-home Childcare and Education manager of education Lorren Hawkins said she often encountered grandparents working as in-home educators.
“It’s particularly lovely to see the way language and culture is shared and passed onto the younger generation. This is something that gets missed too easily in our busy lives.”
She said children got to grow up with a strong sense of identity and belonging.
“Many families are new to the country, and the grandchild is the first generation Kiwi. It’s a lovely way to support the whole family in learning about the New Zealand education system.”
Lucy Adlam founded Joy For Generations, a community group that organises intergenerational playgroups in the Wairarapa.
“Some of our elderly experience so much social isolation, and their mental health is so connected to that. If they’re lonely, that can lead to depression, which in turn can see their physical health really deteriorate.”
While the playgroups originally focused on the benefits to the elderly, she soon realised every generation benefitted.
“The children learn about caring, kindness and empathy. The parents get to be nurtured themselves and get social interaction. As a collective, intergenerational relationships are beneficial to all of us, regardless of age.”
Hayes said the charity needed more grandparents.
“We have a waiting list of families looking for a grandparent to ‘complete’ them. The families know how important those relationships are not just for the grandparents, but for themselves too.”
Macfarlane said her research found generativity – or knowledge being passed down to generations – wasn’t always the focus.
“Actually, a lot of our seniors said it was more them learning things from the children than the other way around, especially around technology. Learning how to use technology makes it even easier for these connections to grow.”