One in three American seniors is lonely. The headline stopped Jill McManigal as she scrolled through an online news site one morning in 2018. And as the Carlsbad, California, mom read the article, her heart sank. Not only was the number of isolated senior citizens shockingly high, but loneliness didn’t just affect their emotional well-being — research suggested it could shorten life expectancy as much as smoking.
These folks have spent their lives taking care of others. This is unacceptable, Jill thought, and she found herself wanting to do something to help. Immediately, her mind drifted back to another time when she felt compelled to take action.
After 9/11, Jill, a mom of a preschooler at the time, had been overwhelmed with sorrow for the loss of life and innocence. What kind of world will our children grow up in? she’d wondered sadly.
As years passed and she’d added another child to her family, Jill’s wish for a kinder world had grown stronger. Then in 2006, while at a barbecue, Jill had gotten to talking to a high school student, Danielle Gram, who shared her dream. And as they’d chatted, they came up with an idea to form Kids for Peace, a club with a simple premise: Kids would focus on doing acts of peace and kindness in their community.
As word of the club had spread, chapters multiplied, eventually spreading across the country and beyond. Now, as Jill finished reading the article, another idea took shape in her mind and heart: Why not team the kids up with seniors to do kindness projects? Jill thought, her heart swelling at how such a program would brighten the world of both generations.
Soon, Jill was working with local senior centers, matching young people, ages three to 18, with senior citizens. And the Grandfriends Kindness Project was born.
Jill was touched and inspired by the kindness projects that the newfound friends came up with. One pair decorated gratitude jars and gave them to other Grandfriends’ participants. Another started a thank-you campaign for city bus drivers, making posters that said, We like how you roll, that they personally delivered along with Tootsie Rolls.
Heart ornaments were made and given to homebound seniors. Peanut butter sandwich sack lunches were delivered to homeless folks. During the pandemic, the focus shifted to Loving Letters for Grandfriends, which enabled the participants to stay connected through a heartwarming pen pal program. “This is everything we hoped it would be and more,” Jill marveled to Danielle.
Bonded by Love
Jill was especially moved by the bond formed between the young and old. While spreading joy to others, they shared laughs, tidbits about their lives, hopes, and dreams. “It’s been a genuine pleasure connecting as a Grandfriend,” says Lois, 73. “I’ve built new and positive relationships.”
Gloria, 87, agrees wholeheartedly. “If it wasn’t for my little friend, I would have been so lonely while staying home because of the pandemic. But with each letter I received, I felt loved and appreciated. I was tickled to learn that yellow is mutually our favorite color because it reminds us both of happy daffodils and the warm sun. Happy and warm — that’s how my friend makes me feel!”
And the young people are just as enthusiastic. “It’s fun getting together with the older generation,” says 9-year-old Isabelle. “We get to share our thoughts and see things in a new way.” Jill couldn’t be more thrilled.
“We want our youth to know that when they see sadness or injustice, they can take action to make life better for others. And we want our seniors to know they are vital members of our community,” she says. “Together, they prove that you are never too young or old to make a difference or spread love and kindness!”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.