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7 Ways to Build Bonds Across Generations

Children and older adults — and the communities they live in — benefit from shared activities and time spent together

From the moment we enter preschool, we're grouped by age. But there are numerous benefits to connecting older and younger generations with one another. These seven programs are building intergenerational bonds through gardening, the arts, mentoring and — simply — conversation.

Providence Mount St. Vincent Assisted Living, Seattle, Washington

Providence Mount St Vincent Assisted Living, Seattle, Elderly Woman Shakes Hands And Talks To Two Young Children, Indoors, Room, Livable Communities, Build Bonds Across Generations

Photo courtesy Peter Howland Photography

Residents at Providence Mount St. Vincent Assisted Living are regularly visited by youngsters from a child care center located in the same facility.

Visitors from as far away as Singapore and Australia have been in touch with the Intergenerational Learning Center at Providence Mount St. Vincent Assisted Living since the release of a trailer by filmmaker Evan Briggs in 2015.

The documentary, Present Perfect, celebrates the daily interactions between the learning center's 125 children and the assisted living facility's 400 adult clients.

"I've talked to literally hundreds of people since the trailer went viral," says Marie Hoover, director of the learning center, which serves infants to 5-year-olds.

Seeing the connections on film reinforced to Hoover and other staff that these bonds were so much more important than running an activity, keeping the kids under control and managing logistics.

"The activity a teacher may have planned is nowhere near as important as the love between the two age groups," she says. "When I talk to people who want to bring this model to their hometowns, I emphasize the importance of that. The activities are the vehicle to spread the love."

Every day, the children visit residents at the Mount — average age 92 — to share music, art, a meal or simply a hello.

"I've been in many long-term care facilities and seen the isolation and sadness that so many places have," Hoover says. "The Mount is so different. It's energetically different and you feel it when you're here," she adds, noting that several residents have pet cats and staff members often bring their dogs to work.

The Intergenerational School, Cleveland, Ohio

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Photo courtesy The Intergenerational School

Older adults mentor students in academics, and students visit assisted living centers to help with activities such as gardening, musical theater productions and oral history projects.

Who better to start an intergenerational school than a geriatric neurologist married to a developmental psychologist?

Peter and Catherine Whitehouse did just that, launching a K-8 public charter school called The Intergenerational School. As part of its mission to "connect, create and guide a multigenerational community of lifelong learners and spirited citizens," the school enlists older adult mentors.

"We reject the idea that age should be how you organize learning. Learning is a life-long process and we should invite learners of all ages to participate in learning activities," says Peter Whitehouse. The school's first intergenerational program — a one-on-one reading program — remains the most important, with nearly 100 reading mentors volunteering at least once a week.

"Because of their circumstances, many of the children don't have early literacy skills," Whitehouse says. "We train our volunteers that their job is not to teach reading skills, it's to teach a love of books and to use books as a way to have rich conversations."

The Intergenerational School's programs are, says Whitehouse, "relationship based," so the same adults and children work together on a regular basis. Counting all three schools, there are about 600 adult participants and 600 students.

Observes Whitehouse: "Year after year they see students growing and thriving and achieving. Everyone feels a great sense of satisfaction."

Maple Knoll Village, Cincinnati, Ohio

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Photo courtesy Maple Knoll Village

Children from the Maple Knoll child care center entertain their "grandfriends" with bubbles.

Young children are a common sight across the 54-acre campus of Maple Knoll Village, a nonprofit continuing care retirement community.

They're gardening with residents, learning carpentry or — in an annual tradition — even dressing in Victorian costumes and selling popcorn. With 750 independent, assisted and nursing care residents ages 55 to 105, interactions depend upon the level of activity.

Some "Grandfriends," as the children call them, read with the children, while others eagerly await weekly arts classes or parachute toss visits from preschoolers at the Maple Knoll Montessori Child Center. Some children even serve as teachers, helping dementia patients with matching games or puzzles with knobs.

Maple Knoll Village, Children Hugging Grandfriend, Elderly Woman, Livable Communities, Build Bonds Across Generations

Photo courtesy Maple Knoll Village

Five preschoolers hug an older resident of Maple Knoll Village.

"The children and residents have so many similar needs at this age: their fine motor needs improvement, their vision," says Meri Fox, director of the center, which serves 22 children ages 3 through 6. "The whole philosophy is respecting the individual and following their needs. It's all about being purposeful and not just playing silly little games."

The Montessori Child Center benefits from the tremendous resources of the village, including a singing group, ceramics studio, radio station and weaving looms. The frequent interactions help children overcome their apprehension of older adults.

"Many times I've had parents say that their child doesn't ignore elderly people when they're out and about in public, and that the children are more helpful and empathetic. The interactions bring an awareness of the elderly to them," Fox says.

It's quite an evolution for Maple Knoll, which began as a widow's home in 1848 and now includes 142 independent villas, 134 independent apartments, 63 assisted-living rooms and 145 beds in skilled nursing.

One Generation, Van Nuys, California

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Photo courtesy ONEgeneration

An older man and a preschool-age girl paint pictures of aliens together.

When a team of researchers studied the adult and child day care programs at the nonprofit ONEgeneration center, they found that the adults with dementia were less withdrawn, self-stimulated or passive when they regularly interacted with children as part of the program.

Correspondingly, the kids expressed less ageism, increased empathy and a stronger ability to delay gratification, says Anna Swift, program director for ONEgeneration's adult day care.

"You really do see the benefit to both populations. It's a very special program," says Swift, whose own son attended the child care center. "For our seniors, they're a very dependent population but when they interact with the children, they get that adult role back, they feel needed, and have the opportunity to teach and instruct."

Every day, each of the eight classrooms engages in one or more activities with the adults, whether seniors rocking a baby, taking a nature walk with the older children or cooking or crafting together. "It becomes an integrated part of the day for both the children and the seniors," Swift says. "They call each other their 'neighbors.'"

One woman with advanced dementia could stay focused for a half-hour when giving a bottle to an infant. She also seemed calmer and happier after time in the baby room. Another man with early onset Alzheimer's developed a connection with a little girl whom he read to and helped settle into naptime.

"His wife said the program had given her her husband back," Swift recalls. "He had things he talked about in his day. She said, 'We have dinner conversation again.' "

The senior citizens also work with at-risk youth on art mentorship, although not as regularly as they connect with the 120 children at the center. The adult center has 100 people enrolled, with an average of 55 attending each day. The oldest attendee is 98 and the average age is 85.

Intergenerational Community Garden, Louisville, Kentucky

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Photo courtesy Jewish Community Center of Louisville

Preschoolers are encouraged to help in the community garden, which grows flowers, fruits and vegetables.

What better way to connect than digging in the dirt together? Senior citizens and preschoolers alike tend the intergenerational community garden at the Jewish Community Center of Louisville.

"Our senior volunteers' passion for the garden and the children's curiosity makes for an ideal pairing," says Michael Fraade, who oversees the garden as a JOFEE Fellow with the Jewish Community of Louisville. "Adults who have maintained the garden have a great opportunity to teach the children. The younger generation has an opportunity to learn from the accumulated experience of the elders."

Preschoolers in the JCC's Early Learning Center and summer campers help plant, weed, tend and harvest food from the garden, the majority of which is donated to the needy. These activities reinforce Jewish values such as tzedakah (charitable giving) and being shomrei adamah (earth keepers). The garden also provides symbolic foods for holidays such as potatoes for Hanukkah latkes, parsley for Passover, apple for Rosh Hashanah, and gourds and corn to decorate the Sukkah during the fall harvest festival.

San Pasqual Academy Neighbors, San Diego, California

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Photo from Friends of the San Pasqual Academy

A San Pasqual Academy student and coach warm-up for a softball game.

Founded in 2001, the San Pasqual Academy provides a residential education for high school students at risk for slipping through the cracks.

The academy connects children in the foster care system to community resources, health care, financial literacy and workforce preparation services through on-site county social workers and nonprofit partners. As part of the program, 13 senior citizens who live in deeply subsidized housing on the 250-acre campus volunteer at least 10 hours a week by coaching a sport, teaching cooking or gardening, sharing music and art, or simply mentoring the students.

"We have lots of kids whose number one support person has been their San Pasqual grandparent," says Yvonne Campbell, director of the San Pasqual Academy Neighbors (SPAN) intergenerational mentoring program. "A program like this benefits both parties. The biggest issue with the kids is learning to trust adults because they've been let down by a lot of adults in their lives."

"Grandparents" contribute based on their own interests and talents. Some help with the baseball, softball and volleyball teams, while others organize poetry slams or help the children fly model airplanes.

"It started as an experience for the kids to have somebody they're connected with, who's not like a staff person keeping track of them, but a relationship," says Campbell. Often, the relationship extends after the students have graduated to college or the workforce. "That grandparent is their main connection and the person they call when there's an issue."

Tiny Tigers Intergenerational Center, Marshfield, Wisconsin

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Photo courtesy Tiny Tiger Intergenerational Center

At the Tiny Tiger Intergenerational Center, high school students interested in human services careers learn how to care for children and older adults.

In 2001, students in the "Careers with Kids" classes at Marshfield High School asked why the school had a transportation lab and science lab for students considering careers in those fields, but no facility for students to gain hands-on experience caring for children or the elderly.

Six years later, the Tiny Tiger Intergenerational Center opened in answer to that question, comprising a child care center and adult day care center where students could volunteer and work in preparation for a career in human services.

Students can take classes about caregiving, life span development, career pathways and activities that connect generations. They can also earn a certificate to become an assistant child care teacher.

In addition, adults in the day program visit the child care center, whether to rock a baby to sleep, color alongside a toddler or read to a preschooler. (One "Grandfriend" came to the center after a bout with cancer that left her unable to walk. But her daily routine of holding and feeding the babies helped her recovery, to the point that she could again get around easily with a walker.)

"The child's need to explore can alleviate the elder's boredom," explains Jennifer Fredrick, career and technical education coordinator for the Marshfield School District. "A child's need to interact can alleviate the older adult's loneliness, and the child's need for guidance can alleviate the elder's helplessness."

About 100 students from Marshfield High take classes in the Human Services Academy and can easily walk across the street to the center, which serves 130 children from infant to school age. The high school students and the young children become comfortable around older adults and those with a physical disability or memory impairment. All carry this greater awareness and empathy with them when they leave the center.   

"There's a demand for professional, compassionate caregivers and the Tiny Tiger Intergenerational Center offers students an opportunity to learn about these concepts and apply their knowledge from all their coursework," says Fredrick, whose 5-year-old daughter attends the center, sometimes being cared for by high school students.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in, Bloomberg Businessweek, Money, Mother Jones, MSN Money, New York Times, Parade, Slate and the Washington Post Magazine.

Page published October 2016

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