How can we brighten up the lives of people living in nursing homes? The Providence Mount St. Vincent elderly care facility in Seattle opened a preschool in their building to create a greater sense of community – and the results have been phenomenal. For the children, it’s like having dozens of adoring grandparents. The senior citizens light up when the adorable young faces arrive. They share their wisdom and play with the children, cherishing visits from the surrogate grandkids.
Administrator Charlene Boyd explains, “We wanted to create a place for people to come live, not come to die.” When the children visit, seniors find themselves physically active, laughing and acting as role models. Interacting with the preschoolers gives them a sense of purpose and self-worth.
There are 500 elderly residents and 125 children in the Intergenerational Learning Center at the Mount. Different groups of children leave their classrooms to visit the elder care facility each day.
Some activities are planned and others occur spontaneously. Sing-alongs, dancing, art, storytelling, recreational games and playtime are often on the agenda. The residents and children also come together to make sandwiches for the homeless. Working and playing together result in the two generations forming strong bonds.
In addition to playing with schoolchildren, the seniors also interact with babies. One resident suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease was able to access the part of her brain that remembered raising children. Before spending time with the babies, her speech was garbled and incomprehensible. But in the presence of the babies, she spoke clearly.
Everyone, especially the elderly, can benefit from social interaction of all kinds. As research has found with therapy animals, seniors’ mental and physical health are both improved by spending time with other beings.
And the children at the Mount benefit greatly from socializing with elders. They learn about disabilities and aging, thus developing empathy for older people. Fortunately, they seem to be too young to understand the concept of death. If they notice someone is missing and that person has passed away, the teachers ask the children to share their favorite memory of the deceased. The children do not dwell on death because they do not understand it.
They are also remarkably patient with people suffering from dementia. If an older person is hard of hearing or forgetful and asks a child to repeat something over and over, the child complies without becoming frustrated.
The juxtaposition of these two populations and their beautiful interaction inspired filmmaker Evan Briggs to produce a documentary about the Intergenerational Learning Center called The Growing Season. The film illustrates the benefits of the elderly and preschoolers spending time together.
This model of mixing children beginning their lives with senior citizens who have decades of history to share results in wonderful experiences on both sides. Their complementary relationship proves that we should place more value on our older generations. Ageism is an unwarranted insult to people who have so much to share.
The preschool is staffed with well-qualified teachers, and the intergenerational model appeals to parents. There are over 400 families on the waiting list to attend school at The Mount. Many facilities have and plan to copy the model, to the benefit of children and senior citizens all over the world.