"What's it like to have wrinkles?" "Do your teeth fall out one at a time or all together?" "Can old people play poker?"
The questions were thoughtful, tough and personal, but the fourth graders fron J. O. Wilson School in Northeast had been encouraged to ask 71-year-old Delma Dockett whatever they wanted about "what it's like to be old."
Dockett, a senior volunteer at the Capital Children's Museum participating in their "Another Birthday" program, offered these answers:
"Wrinkles don't hurt, they're soft . . . If you take good care of your teeth they don't have to fall out at all . . . Some old people play poker, some play other card games and some play games like checkers or chess."
This intergenerational interchange is part of the museum's "generation-gap-closing program." After 50 senior citizen volunteers help children learn from the museum by helping them use the "touch-it, work-it-yourself" exhibits and by participating in special programs like "Another Birthday."
Bringing together oldsters and youngsters "is a dream come true," museum director Ann Lewin told nearly 100 senior citizen volunteers and activists at last week's program celebrating Older Americans Month.
"In Sweden old people's homes are placed next door to day-care centers. We need to do things like that in this country because old people and young people have a great deal to offer each other.
"This museum is a place where all segments of society -- old, young, rich, poor -- can come together, learn and have fun."
Said Dr. Robert Butler, director of the National Institute on Aging: "It's a marvelous way to build an understanding of the life cycle as a whole and combat agism, by presenting to children the positive, lively and remarkable aspects of old age."
In keeping with the museum's "hands-on" philosophy, each child who visited the exhibits that morning received a copy of "A Treasure Hunt," an NIA-commissioned book depicting young people discovering and getting to know older people in their community.
"Children's books frequently depict old people as mean, cantankerous folks who aren't interested in children," said Butler."Children who grow up with this negative stereotype are learning agism. Hopefully, books like this will change that."
"In our culture, children probably think being old means degenerating," said senior volunteer Wenonah Logan, 73. "Unless they have grandparents they think old people are just feeble, grumpy souls who don't see very well and are always looking for their glasses.
"But we show them how old people have lots of interests -- clothes, theater, the ballet. We want to give them the opportunity to get to know us."
There are "lots of fun things about being old," said Delma Dockett to her group of fourth graders.
They came up with two: "having time to sit on the porch and talk to neighbors" and "not having to go to work or to school."
Dockett, who often surprises youthful charges with her agility, said "one child wanted to know if I disco danced. I said I knew how to rock and showed them how to rock down to the ground.
"They looked at me with open mouths and then joined in. One boy wanted to learn another dance so I showed him the waltz. We had a great time."
Volunteer Estella Frye has found that "children like you because you smile when they smile. It doesn't take a lot to make a child happy. Just being with them and laughing together is enough."
Gray Panther Gustina Golson, 79, summed up the affinity between senior and junior citizens: "We have the back ideas and they have the front ideas, so we understand each other very well."