Surrogate grannies help children learn to play

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The Independent Online
A WEALTH of knowledge and experience is being ignored as the population of Britain grows old, but one scheme is trying to change all that by getting elderly people to become surrogate grandparents.

Trans Age Action, run by Age Concern - one of the charities featured in the IoS Christmas appeal - is based on the Foster Grandparent Programme in the US. It recruits people aged 55 and older to act as role models for children from vulnerable families and encourages them to use their skills to help the children to benefit from their experience.

Enid Irving, manager of the project, says that another advantage of the programme is that while offering the children a role model it also allows the older mentors to feel that they are giving something back to their community and are playing an active role in society.

"The scheme really gives people something to live for and makes older people feel needed which can be very fulfilling," she said. "Often they are left out of their community but this gives them a feeling of belonging which is so often missing for them."

The scheme is currently running in only four areas (Stockport, Warwickshire and Enfield and Camden in London) but there are hopes that it will become a national scheme.

Volunteers, once they have had a police check, spend a period in initial training before deciding where they want to help. Usually it is in family centres and after-school clubs, but an important feature of the scheme means that their training is on-going and the volunteers are free to choose where they want to offer help.

One such volunteer is Jean Wilkins, 64, who had been helping out with administrative duties at her local Age Concern office since the death of her husband. When the scheme was launched at the Arnos Family Centre in Arnos Grove, London, Mrs Wilkins was asked if she wanted to get involved.

"I do like children and that was one reason I got involved, but it also was a chance to get out of the house and do something," she said. "It was a challenge to help these children. Some of them come to the centre and don't even know how to play. You have to teach them how to do it."

For Dorothy Pagin from Enfield, Middlesex, who at 58 is one of the "babies" in the scheme, it offered her the chance to get involved with something after she retired from running her own business.

She helps out at a temporary accommodation play project where there are a lot of Turkish refugees and single mothers. "I like children and had been involved with children most of my life as a foster parent and this was an ideal way to keep active," she said.

Many volunteers say that the reaction they get from children and staff on the scheme, along with the feeling that they are doing something worthwhile, is what keeps them going.

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