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generations of handsAs director of child care at senior living provider Ebenezer, Jody Schumann is passionate about bringing together children and older adults. “It gives the seniors a sense of purpose,” she said.

Currently, Ebenezer is working to develop The Pillars of Prospect Park, a 283-residence independent living, assisted living, and memory care community. It will have all the amenities—club room, theater, fitness center, bistro—and it will have a little something more as well. An onsite childcare center will accommodate up to 100 kids ranging in age from infant to pre-kindergarten. In keeping with past practice at other communities, Ebenezer expects that residents will serve as volunteer “grand-friends” to play with and nurture the kids.

Onsite child care is perhaps the most extreme example of a trend toward intergenerational programming—and the notion that when kids and older adults spend structured time together, everyone benefits. Such programs have their potential pitfalls: Will the kids have fun? Will the seniors be safe? For executive directors pondering the merits of intergenerational programming, it’s worth taking a look at the pros and cons; exploring some meaningful efforts; and considering best practices from senior living providers.

Finding meaning

Before considering how we might bring kids and seniors together, it’s important to review the why.

The numbers help to tell the story. In a recent study, advocacy group Generations United found that 92 percent of adults believe seniors benefit from building relationships with children and youth.

Yet the opportunities for such interaction are slim. We live in an age-segregated time: Nearly a quarter of the nation’s neighborhoods contain a disproportionately high share of older adults, while 31 percent contain either a disproportionately high share of children and their parents or a disproportionately high share of young adults, the study found.

An overwhelming majority of adults—77 percent—said they wish there were more opportunities for people from different age groups to meet and get to know one another.

Experts point to three compelling reasons for promoting interaction between kids and seniors. There are benefits to the older adults; benefits to senior living communities; and benefits for the kids as well.

Student working with a Mather resident in Evanston
Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work student Genna Power working with Peggy Cusick, a resident of The Mather in Evanston, during the Aged to Perfection program. Photo credit: Mather LifeWays.

“Older adults don’t want to be segregated or siloed,” said Roscoe Nicholson, senior research associate from Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, the research arm of senior living provider Mather LifeWays. “For many older adults, mentoring types of activities give a sense of purpose. It offers them a legacy, a chance to transmit wisdom to younger generations.”

In addition to therapeutic benefits, such encounters can form the basis of lasting relationships. Nicholson’s organization paired seniors with college students, “and even after the conclusion of the class both the students and the residents were talking about having reunions, talking about continuing to see each other, to build on the bonds they had created,” he said.

Seniors may gain in vitality and awareness. Interactions with young people can boost cognition and improve one’s sense of well-being. “To feel like your life is worthwhile, it helps to be engaged in activities where you can share your skills and experiences,” said Generations United senior fellow Dr. Nancy Henkin. “This is a way to create a sense of connection, a sense of belonging.”

Senior living organizations also derive a business benefit when they promote intergenerational activities. Too often, senior housing exists in isolation from its neighbors, gated off and set apart. By opening up the gates and encouraging interaction with school kids, Scouts, college students and others, senior living inherently can make itself better understood and appreciated.

“It’s the ultimate community integration opportunity. It’s a chance to get people in the community to really understand what your operation is all about, a chance to tell your story to a wider audience,” said James Fuccione, senior director of the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative. By opening its doors and de-stigmatizing the senior population, a community can help to spark important discussions. “You can’t combat ageism just through older adults. Ultimately you need to engage all ages, which you do through intergenerational programming.”

Ebenezer’s onsite childcare program has had exactly this effect. “The family members who drop off their children become aware of everything that we have on our campus. Then if grandma needs an adult day program or some other level of care, they already know what we have available. That is a huge benefit,” Schumann said.

In addition, some say, intergenerational efforts can help senior living providers meet the long-term challenge of building and maintaining a workforce loyal to the industry. “If you expose young people in high school to this environment, if you do this at an early age, they might get interested in this as a career field. You are creating a pipeline of future workers,” said Henkin.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the kids themselves benefit from time spent with older adults. University of Florida researchers found that intergenerational experiences can:

Around the nation, senior living providers have in recent years begun to experiment with social and educational opportunities that span a wide demographic range. There are of course the traditional multigenerational efforts: The kids come in to sing a song; veterans tell their stories. But some communities have dug deeper, seeking out creative new ways to go beyond one-off events and to encourage seniors and kids to build long-lasting relationships.

Classroom bonds

Mather LifeWays teamed with Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work professor Marcia Spira to develop Aged to Perfection, a course on aging with older adults serving as instructors. Nine residents took part in the spring 2018 program, talking about stereotypes, life transitions, spirituality, and other topics.

“We wanted to capitalize on the residents’ own life experience,” Nicholson said. “With the residents being actively involved in the design and content of the course, it honors the expertise that comes from lived life experience. And it’s an opportunity for the older adults to connect to a different population. The residents told us that most of their contact with younger people was through family members, and so this course offered a very different type of contact, a very different interaction, outside of the usual family dynamics.”

To make the experience successful, Spira worked with students in advance to tailor their expectations and help shape the encounters. “She played a really instrumental role in facilitating these discussions. Given the sensitive nature of these topics, the personal nature of the stories that were shared, it’s important to have someone lay the groundwork around respect and consideration, that what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom. When you are beginning a program like this, it’s important to establish the ground rules in order to create the right sort of environment,” Nicholson said.

Watermark Retirement Communities has followed a similar course, albeit with a younger crowd, pairing residents from its Rosewood Gardens community with teams of students from nearby Livermore High School in a program known as Seniors Helping Seniors.

“We’ve had church groups and other activities with younger kids, but there is not a lot of real interaction. We wanted to do something where they would have a deeper chance to interact with one another,” said Stephanie Goodyear, community life director and associate executive director. “We wanted them to learn from the seniors, specifically in answer to one question: What gets more difficult as you get older? Then the students would get together to come up with an invention that would make life a little better.”

Students met multiple times with their seniors and developed some ingenious ideas. Residents kept losing the iPod Shuffle devices used in their music and memory program, so the students used a 3D printer to create attractive wearable cases. “One resident wanted to wash her own second-story window and the group invented a device with a squeegee on the outside and a magnet, so that person can now wash their window from the inside,” Goodyear said. Another team developed a portable arm rest to help residents get up off of comfy couches.

Residents get more than clever new tools: They get a chance to be heard. “These are people who were in command of their lives for so long and now they have less control of their surroundings. This gives them control again,” Goodyear said.

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