It could have been any youngster greeting his or her grandparent.

John Richards, 7, marched proudly up to 85-year-old Julia Harding and presented her with his school-made present - a big red Valentine's Day card.

"Oh, isn't that nice!" she exclaimed. "And it's been such a long time since I've seen you. Give me a kiss."

John responded dutifully, smacking the cheek she presented him with an awkward kiss, and then settled into the crook of her waiting arm for some heart-to-heart talk.

Just like any grandparent-grandchild encounter, but with a twist: Mrs. Harding isn't John's real grandmother. She was "adopted" by him under a special program managed by Montgomery County's Grosvenor Elementary School at a Bethesda nursing home.

The program, called "Adopt-a-Grandparent," is designed to bridge the gap that often exists between old and young people today - a gap that sociologists say is one of the hallmarks of modern America. Authorities claim that today children grow up in a world for the most part without old people, while old people live isolated from age groups other than their own.

The program's originator, second-and third-grade teacher Laura Naimark, refuses to accept that vision of America as an unchangeable fact. "There's no excuse for it here," she says. "Not when you have a nursing home right next door, as we do."

Wildwood Health Care Center is, in fact, just a few yards away, on the lot adjoining Grosvenor Elementary School. For the past two years, Naimark has been taking her young charges on visits there three or four times a month.

At the beginning of the school year, each child is paired with one or more of the two dozen or so Wildwood residents chosen to participate in the program. After some preliminary class talks about nursing homes and older people, Naimark lets the relationships evolve naturally.

"A lot of the children are a little apprehensive at first," she says. "They haven't really been around a lot of old people. Their grandparents may be away in California or somewhere. So they start out very shy, and sometimes a little scared.

"But its beautiful to see how they become close and develop really warm friendships with the people in the home. They get to realize that the elderly are people. They learn to respect them as human beings and adults who are fun to be with - not just old people in wheelchairs."

If the children get something out of it, so do the Wildwood residents.

"So many of them do not have families in the area," says Esdeane Osgood, patient services coordinator, "or they see their families only rarely. This gives them some regular contact with people outside the home - and especially with someone from another generation."

That contact was in full swing the other day, as the youngsters brought in Valentine's Day greetings for their grandparents."

Marcus Cole, 95, was deep in conversation about baskeball and a coming family trip with 60-year-old John Hanley of Silver Spring. Hanley, who is confined to a wheelchair, has six grandchildren but says he doesn't get to see them very often.

"This is wonderful," said Hanley. "You know," he recalled wonderingly, "one little girl here came Christmas Eve with her mother and sister and brother and brought me some homemade cookies."

Cora Stewart, who has four grandchildren in Iowa, was enjoying her valentine card from "granddaughter" Beth Jessup. The card, with its orginal spelling, read, "Happiness is haveing you and huging you. Thank you. I love you."

After the visit, Jessica Schulz, 7, who made cookies for her adopted grandparents, said that she like going over to see them because her real grandparents are "far, far away - in Michigan and Florida and Peoria."

And Joanna Broder, whose grandparents are in New York and Florida, had the highest compliment for her adopted grandmother: "She's like a real grandparent."