I have previously referred to the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren as a “spiritual connection,” a profound emotional bond that is genetically rooted, manifested psychologically, and expressed as a deep emotional attachment. After many years of studying the nature of this phenomenon, I have learned that this bond spans even another dimension of human experience: that of the spirit.
A Mysterious Connection
It is challenging to describe the special nature of the grandparent-grandchild bond. It seems to go beyond the physical, emotional or psychological. The concept of spirit often came to my mind when I interviewed children and elders who shared a deep bond. During these intergenerational interviews, I noticed aspects of their relationship that could not adequately be explained in psychological terms. I became aware that something more than what I understood as emotion was operating between elders and children. This phenomenon wasn’t limited to the interaction between grandparents and their grandchildren; I observed it happening frequently between young people interacting with elders in general, as I described in my book, “Spirit” (Warner Books).
“One day I brought several elementary schoolchildren to visit a nursing home as part of an intergenerational program linking the two institutions. One of the youngsters who accompanied me was 7-year-old Annie. When Annie first entered the sitting room of the nursing home, she looked around shyly at the frail residents talking quietly amongst themselves or just sitting alone. She then noticed a seemingly lifeless old woman in a corner of the room. She sat listing over the side of her wheelchair, held in place by a belt fastened around her waist. The woman seemed oblivious to her surroundings.
“Look at that cute granny over there,” Annie said to me. “She looks so lonely.” “That’s Mrs. Boyce. See if you can talk to her,” a nurse suggested.
Annie and I walked over to the old woman. Annie stood in front of her, then squatted and tilted her head sideways so she could look up into Mrs. Boyce’s face. Mrs. Boyce raised her head. Her eyes were dim and gray. Annie smiled and said, “Hi.” Mrs. Boyce shifted her body. “Hello, child,” she whispered hoarsely.
“I like your dress,” said Annie. She reached out and touched the lace collar on Mrs. Boyce’s dress. “This is pretty.”
At this point, I wandered away to see how the other children were doing. After an hour or so I returned to check up on Annie. She wasn’t where I had left her. I asked the nurse if she knew where Annie had gone. “She wheeled Mrs. Boyce back to her room. It’s 112.”
When I entered Mrs. Boyce’s room, she was sitting up straight in her wheelchair. Annie was standing in front of her while Mrs. Boyce combed Annie’s hair. Annie was radiant. “She knew my grandpa,” she said to me.
It was an amazing transformation. Mrs. Boyce did not look like the same woman slumped in her wheelchair that I had seen just an hour ago. She was sitting up straight, there was life in her movements, and her eyes were bright. She had been energized and illuminated by this child. It seemed that Annie had given Mrs. Boyce something, or released something within her.
Medical and psychological explanations raced through my mind as I tried to find a reason for this transformation. Did Annie remind Mrs. Boyce of someone in her past and thus Annie served as a conduit for activating Mrs. Boyce’s memory? Did Annie’s presence simply engage Mrs. Boyce’s interest because she had no such stimulation at the nursing home? Did these factors cause Mrs. Boyce’s body to react by pumping adrenalin into her bloodstream, explaining this drastic change in her demeanor?
These explanations were plausible, but they were not sufficient, in my view, to explain the extent of Mrs. Boyce’s sudden vitality. Perhaps Mrs. Boyce wasn’t revitalized because her thyroid or adrenal glands pumped hormones into her bloodstream. Perhaps she was revitalized – or re-spirited – by her interaction with Annie.
“What did you do, Annie? You sure perked up Mrs. Boyce,” I said. “Nothing,” Annie replied. “She just combed my hair.”
Illumination and Transformation
It seemed like magic to me. It was times like these when I realize that the attachment between the old and the young is not only physical and emotional, but spiritual as well. This spiritual dimension of the self not only contains love, wonder, and joy, but has the capacity to “illuminate” and “transform,” as with Mrs. Boyce. Children seem to sense the spiritual qualities of older people and can transform what society generally sees as useless people into valuable elders.