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An Intergenerational Approach to Senior Care

There is a new trend sweeping the nation, and it doesn’t have anything to do with technology or fashion. Intergenerational programs are popping up across the country, providing a multitude of benefits for participants, both young and old.

For older adults, spending time with children can help combat feelings of loneliness, which the National Poll on Healthy Aging found affected one in three seniors. For children, quality time with older adults can provide them with attention and mentoring they might otherwise be lacking, according to a study from Stanford University.

Luckily, a 2018 report from Generations United and the Eisner Foundation stated that there are 105 intergenerational “shared site” programs in the United States. Over two-thirds of the programs said that the goal of their intergenerational program was to “promote positive intergenerational relationships, improve attitudes toward elders and youth and support the health and development of participants.”

A Preschool in a Seattle Nursing Home

Providence Mount St. Vincent is a senior living community in Seattle that has established a licensed preschool inside their 300,000 square-foot facility. Five days a week, Monday through Friday, little ones, from newborns through age 5, come to play and learn at the Mount’s Intergenerational Learning Center, which has been operating as a nonprofit preschool since 1991.

The program, which was specifically designed to counter the loneliness and boredom that can affect residents of an assisted living facility, encourages intergenerational engagement between the old and the young. An article published in The Atlantic profiled the program and reported, “Six times a week, teachers take their groups to the residential floors to visit the elders for anywhere from 20 minutes for the infants to 60 minutes for the older children. Residents are welcome to observe in the classrooms, and structured activities for the children and residents to participate in together are scheduled daily. Because they share the same building, there are opportunities for spontaneous engagement, too—when inclement weather strikes, and the children must make do with the halls, lobby, and vacant rooms as their playground, for example. Or when an area musician comes around to play tunes for the children to sing and dance to along with the elders.”

One of the biggest benefits has been an exuberance brought back into the lives of the Mount’s residents. In particular, one resident with Alzheimer’s disease who struggled with speech was able to articulate her thoughts clearly every time she entered the infant room.

“Mommy and Me” at Los Angeles Senior Living Communities

The "Tots 2 Seniors" class in Los Angeles was founded by Elisa Schoenfeld, a child development specialist and mother of four. As a child, Schoenfeld dedicated some of her time to visiting retirement communities and recalls it as a heart-warming experience. When it came time for her to plant some professional roots, she decided to combine two of the things she loves the most: helping the elderly and educating young children. She partnered with L.A.-area senior living communities to create a roving “Mommy and Me” class where littles can regularly interact with older adults.

By implementing activities that are fun for all ages—like bubbles, art, music, puppets and dance—the “Tots 2 Seniors” classes help create a bridge between the generations. Many of the seniors involved in the class light up when talking about it and the impact it has had on their lives. From igniting old memories of their own childhood, to providing moments of uninhibited joy, “Tots 2 Seniors” has been able to pull even the most introverted seniors out of their room.

Joint Daycare in Grand Rapids, Michigan

When Sue Davidson and her staff decided to expand their daycare program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to include more than just young children, she turned to Dr. Shannon Jarrott at Virginia Tech. Jarrott, who now works at Ohio State University, had established an intergenerational daycare program with a research component with her award-winning “Neighbors Growing Together” initiative. When interviewed by the "Today" show about her intergenerational daycare work, Jarrott said, “We know that children benefit from having that consistent, caring adult in their lives, and when seniors are invited to contribute in an age-appropriate and ability-appropriate manner, it gives a role back to them as well.”

Davidson was inspired to develop a care center that would better reflect their Michigan community’s needs. The result was the Bethlehem Intergenerational Center, which operates as both a daycare for children from infancy through kindergarten, and an adult daycare for older adults. The program incorporates one intergenerational activity per day, helping the little ones learn more empathy and patience, and helping the older adults remain active and contributing members of society.

Children Visit Assisted Living Facility in Minnesota

KinderCare Learning Centers and Brookdale Senior Living partnered in Minnesota to create an intergenerational program that unites the youngest and oldest members of their community. The partnership established regular monthly visits from the preschool children to the senior living community, specifically to those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Similar to the “Tots 2 Seniors” class, this partnership engages both the young and old with arts and crafts projects or story time, to keep the fun going for both parties.

“Intergenerational programs like these benefit both groups,” said Beth Landers, Business Development Director with Brookdale Senior Living, in a press release about the program. “Children not only gain an appreciation for older people, but a self-esteem boost from being able to assist others. Seniors, in turn, are able to form connections with people outside of their immediate family and caregivers, thus lessening the isolation that often accompanies old age. By removing the stigma and fear of aging and dementia with children, we are providing a platform for these conversations and general awareness.”

Positive Social Benefits

Intergenerational programs such as the ones described above yield substantial benefits for everyone involved. The children are able to embrace diversity and are given a chance to learn from their elders, while the older adults are encouraged to engage in activities, gain a renewed sense of self-worth, and even tap into memories that may have otherwise stayed long buried. Given the advantages of programs like these, their establishment will hopefully continue to trend upward.

Hilary Young Author

Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.

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