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Sister Edna Lonergan

Recipient of 2019-2020 Andrus Award for Intergenerational Excellence and Founder/president, St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care

Photo By Ackerman + Gruber for AARP

“If God wants it, it will happen. When there’s something I think will benefit people, I keep plugging away, even if I don’t yet see evidence of success. It never fails that the right people come along to turn it into reality.”

More than 20 years ago, I saw the need for a day care center that is intergenerational, where kids, adults with disabilities, seniors and even people with dementia interact in the same space. Our St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care has served tens of thousands of adults and children in our two locations in Milwaukee, and we’re a model inspiring other centers around the globe.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Without adequate care, too many seniors end up in nursing homes prematurely. Even in traditional adult-day-care settings, they miss the joy and sense of purpose that come from being around little ones. Children don’t see an amputated leg or an arm that doesn’t work; they just see the person they cherish. My own brother, who has dementia and was stagnating in a facility in Seattle, thrives in our setting because he is surrounded by children who can’t wait to give him a hug.

Kids benefit equally from adults who have all the time in the world to provide attention and love. Our mixed generations garden together, sing and dance, make art, hang out in our large glass-enclosed park and joyfully do any number of projects with one another. We currently serve about 150 kids each day, in preschool and after-school care, as well as in a program for tweens and teens to develop life skills. With about the same number of adults, we offer everything from medical care to recreation, social activities and, in our newer facility, dental services for patients with cognitive or physical disabilities. It’s especially wonderful to watch a harried mom drop off her child on one side of the center and her elderly parent on the other, knowing both will flourish here.

The moment that sparked my passion

I joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi because I wanted to help people. Over the years I’ve been a nurse, occupational and massage therapist, and I ran a small adult day care. At that center we had a lot of single moms on staff who had to bring their young children to work on days they didn’t have school. One day a client named Frank, who suffered from grand mal seizures, started shaking. Three-year-old Cathy climbed into his lap and hugged him, and his symptoms immediately subsided. I knew in that moment that if I ever had the chance to build a large facility, it would be intergenerational.

Why my approach is unique

When I initially wanted to design my center, I traveled the country looking for a prototype. I found preschools next door to nursing homes where there was some interaction, but no facility offered the total immersion between the generations that I wanted. We spent two years coming up with a blueprint. Our center on the south side of town is 57,000 square feet; our new facility on the north end is 87,000. This gives us space for everything, including a unique overnight respite program where caregivers who desperately need a break or a vacation can comfortably leave their loved one, including those with dementia.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Don’t be afraid to make big requests. There was a wealthy philanthropist who, early on, asked me what I needed, and at first I just said some supplies, which, of course, he got for us. Later, I said I wanted to build an intergenerational day care facility, and he didn’t blink; he helped us raise the money. And, of course, keep the faith. If God wants it, it will happen. When there’s something I think will benefit people, I keep plugging away, even if I don’t yet see evidence of success. It never fails that the right people come along to turn it into reality.

What I hope will be next

I want to see intergenerational centers everywhere. We have created a manual for others to use, everything from designing and running a facility to, equally important, creating effective intergenerational programs. If an adult has had a stroke, for example, you have to carefully set a child on their usable side or their interaction will be limited. We’ve also held several workshops, including an international one last year where people came from as far as Taiwan. Thanks to our model, several intergenerational centers have already been opened in Maryland and California. My dream is for families around the world to have the opportunity to care for one another in their homes and villages, rather than having to send anyone away, which is doable when you have the support of a place like St. Ann Center.