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Retirement Communities Say 'Bring In the Kids!'

Intergenerational programs benefit all age groups

En español | Two years ago, Rachael Grossman and Gertrude O'Neal met at the Cleveland Art Museum when they were in the same tour group. Since then, they've drawn close, logging time together on other outings, and at home.

But this isn't a typical friendship formed by two art-loving fiftysomethings. O'Neal is 97 years old. Grossman is 10.

Intergenerational housing

Tim Hale Photography/Corbis

Intergenerational programs benefit all age groups.

See Also: 5 Ways to Get More Out of Friendship

"I love pushing her around," says Grossman, referring not to a lame bullying tactic, but to O'Neal's wheelchair. "I like how she smiles and is so friendly and kind. It's fun interacting with older people. They teach me and I teach them."

O'Neal, who lives in a nursing home at Judson, a continuing care retirement community in Cleveland, is equally smitten with her decades-younger buddy. "I really look forward to being with her. Rachael is a sweet and intelligent girl. She gives me a better outlook on things," says O'Neal.

Combining the generations

At Judson, intergenerational programming is not just alive and well, but thriving. The goal is to build ongoing relationships between the two groups, rather than have a single in-and-out encounter. Each month, more than 500 students visit the facility to take part in joint school-curriculum-based art, music and environmental projects, and Judson residents tutor math and reading in the city's elementary and middle schools.

The interaction doesn't stop there. Residents and students also attend cultural events together. The professional company Opera Cleveland has produced six operas for Judson, including Carmen and The Barber of Seville, sung by residents along with a local elementary school choir.

Then, there's a movie-making option. Last summer, Patience Hoskins, 82, an independent-living resident, enrolled in a three-week, on-site filmmaking camp at Judson.

New to the art, Hoskins learned about more than just filmmaking; She was in a group with 13-year-old boys. These kids "think differently than we do," she says. "They are curious and restless and computer savvy. I learned how their minds tick and what they talk about." Their documentary, which portrays the different generations comparing notes on pop culture, premiered at the children's school, followed by an encore performance at Judson.

But the relationships didn't end with the screening. "We don't have children here, and our grandchildren are all grown up. We're old folks!" says Hoskins. "They were interested in us as people," she says of the students. "We became good friends."

Hoskins, a former nurse, is also taking part in another Judson program with third graders. Recently, the two groups, with their dramatic age difference, visited a nearby exhibit of Norman Rockwell prints on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, created stories about them, and acted out the scenes together.

Mutually beneficial

Approximately 200 mixed-age programs, such as those in long-term care and adult day care centers, exist around the country, according to Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national organization that advocates for intergenerational programs and policies. And more programs are in the pipeline.

At a time when families often live miles, if not coasts or continents, apart, intergenerational programs make sense. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that integrated sites benefit both groups as well as staff. "We know that many adults who are around young children report being more optimistic and less depressed and say they feel needed," says Butts.

Studies suggest that frail nursing home residents participating in intergenerational activities feel more socially engaged and mobile. Virginia Tech researcher Shannon Jarrott studies adults with dementia. "We think they can't do much of anything, but they have been able to mentor and assist children with cooking, art and literacy activities. This helps both the developing abilities of the children and the diminishing ones of the adults." Jarrott also found that the adults' improved mood lasted even after the children were gone.

Something special in Seattle

Inside Providence Mount St. Vincent ("the Mount"), a Seattle assisted living and long-term care facility, is a vibrant child care center. One toddler room is located on a skilled nursing care floor; another popular destination is the infant room, where residents can hold and cuddle the babies. Besides spontaneous contact, there are formal activities the two groups do together, including sing-alongs, making sandwiches together for the homeless, playing horseshoes every Tuesday, balloon volleyball Thursdays, and reading books to the youngsters on Friday. Older children often sit side by side with residents, while an art therapist helps them create collages and India ink drawings.

"I will sometimes go ahead of a group of kids and observe residents not engaged, and literally the moment they hear the children coming down the hall there's energy in their bodies and joy on their faces," says Marie Hoover, director of the Intergenerational Learning Center at the Mount. "These interactions are very home-like and keep residents' minds alert."

They're just what the pediatrician ordered, too. Family members and teachers say youngsters exposed to intergenerational programming are age-blind, as likely to call an 80-year-old their friend as a 4-year-old peer. "Parents tell me their kids are so comfortable with people of different ages and abilities, and don't fear when they look or speak differently," says Hoover. "The kids, in fact, are more comfortable than their parents in some of these encounters!"

Some youngsters work at a slower pace and benefit from the one-on-one attention these surrogate grandparents provide; others simply bask in their warmth. In one study, Jarrott and her colleagues at Virginia Tech found mixed-age initiatives enhanced empathy in preschoolers.

A college experience

On Jarrott's home turf at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., is Neighbors Growing Together Intergenerational Program, the nation's only university-based, shared-site intergenerational care program. Its adult day care, where Jarrott is director of research and an intergenerational specialist, is located on the same floor of an academic building as a child development center for ages 15 months to 5 years.

While their space is separate, the two generations share a common area where much of the interaction occurs. They take walks together, play games, make music, share snacks, work on projects and visit back and forth. The activities prompt both groups to think creatively and work on motor skills. Neighbors Growing Together cross-trains staff, conducts intergenerational research, develops and evaluates other programs, and presents how-to workshops nationally and internationally. University students get a chance to work at Neighbors Growing Together and, if they choose, can take a course in intergenerational and aging issues.

Staff are also giving these arrangements the thumbs-up. What sometimes prompts them to apply for a long-term care job — and to stay — say administrators, is the unique intergenerational feature.

A study conducted by Generations United also found that shared sites can be more cost-effective in terms of sharing rent and personnel, such as the kitchen cook, a physical therapist or an administrator. And experts predict the intergenerational component will be a draw for families in the market for adult day care or 24/7 nursing home care.

At the Mount in Seattle, residents are always welcome to drop in on any of the six classrooms. The architect designed the Mount's space to encourage spontaneous and formal encounters between the generations. Most of the doors in the child-care classrooms are kept open, except when the kids are napping. Some have a window at the top as well as at the bottom of the door, and along the walls, so residents in wheelchairs can see what's going on, and babies can look through and see them. Architects, senior housing professionals, gerontologists and early-childhood educators from around the world travel to the Mount to learn how the program works and how its architecture invites the two generations to connect.

NewBridge on the Charles in Massachusetts

That connection couldn't be more robust at NewBridge on the Charles, an independent, assisted living and long-term care facility in Dedham, Mass. Last September, a private K-8 Jewish day school moved to its 162-acre campus. Just a few months at its new location, NewBridge already has more than a dozen independently living residents who walk across the grounds to help in the classrooms, library and kindergarten classes at the Rashi School. "The teachers are thrilled to have the residents, and residents say it makes their week!" says Lynda Bussgang, NewBridge's Multigenerational Coordinator who is also the mother of Rashi students and daughter-in-law of NewBridge residents.

A multigenerational garden lies between the school and the retirement community, so when the Rashi School offered a gardening elective, NewBridge green thumbs helped teach, and the two generations worked in the garden together. This winter, they're growing seeds inside that they will plant in the spring. Middle-school students report regularly to the memory-support units in assisted living and long-term care, and share holidays. Their next initiative: starting a multigenerational fitness program.

The sweet sound of music

Back in Ohio, the arrival last August of Caitlin Lynch, 26, was music to the ears of Judson residents. The retirement community launched an experiment this year, giving two Cleveland Institute of Music students apartments on an independent living floor in exchange for one recital a month in the independent, assisted living and long-term care units.

The Juilliard School-trained viola player, who is getting a graduate degree from the Cleveland Institute, couldn't be happier. Last month, Lynch played background music at Judson Christmas parties and entertained at their holiday carol sing-along. She and the other student, a pianist, often perform together in their new home.

"My family lives far away in Oregon, and moving into Judson feels like my family has grown exponentially," Lynch says. "I have all these residents looking out for me and supporting me and sharing their wisdom and life knowledge." One neighbor grows vegetables on the rooftop and often brings some to Lynch. She takes painting lessons from another, and explores Cleveland with a third.

Lynch performs many concerts outside Judson as well. "One of the hardest things is when I don't know anyone in the audience," she says. "But because of the residents' support, I have yet to play anywhere when there hasn't been at least one person from Judson in the audience."

"Bravo" to intergenerational opportunities, says Hoskins, the Judson resident. "It makes me feel younger to interact with young people, and it beats the day-to-day routine!"

Sally Abrahms, a writer from Boston, wrote this article as part of her MetLife Foundation Journalists on Aging Fellowship in partnership with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.