The program was designed to counterbalance the loneliness and boredom that so often characterize life in a nursing facility. These challenges can be particularly evident in homes like the Mount, where the average age is 92 and residents are largely fragile, non-ambulatory, and in need of significant assistance. “We wanted a living, vibrant community; to make sure that this was a place where people came to live, not die,” says Charlene Boyd, an administrator at the center. Bringing children in was a natural solution.
Integrating preschools and nursing homes isn’t an established trend, and there appears to be no real tally of how many are in existence. But judging by the viral nature of videos and articles depicting these programs on social media, it’s a movement many are eager to embrace. In 1976, a Japanese man named Shimada Masaharu combined the nursery school and home for the aged in Tokyo’s Edogawa municipality under one roof. By 1998, Kotoen was one of 16 such joint facilities, according to the Tokyo Ministry for Health, Labour, and Welfare. The idea trickled over to North America around the same time, and today there are intergenerational centers for elders and young children across Japan, Canada, and the United States.
Humans are, and have always been, an intergenerational species. Still, to keep up with the demands of the culture and society of today, the responsibilities of child and elder care have, out of necessity, been outsourced to professionals. “We live in a culture, time, and place where creative people have to use creative means to accomplish something that was always the most ordinary, customary thing in the human experience: older people and younger people sharing their lives,” says Bill Thomas, a doctor and international authority on geriatric medicine and eldercare.
At the Mount, there are plenty of opportunities for intergenerational engagement between residents and the children. Six times a week, teachers take their groups to the residential floors to visit the elders for anywhere from 20 minutes for the infants to 60 minutes for the older children. Residents are welcome to observe in the classrooms, and structured activities for the children and residents to participate in together are scheduled daily. Because they share the same building, there are opportunities for spontaneous engagement, too—when inclement weather strikes, and the children must make do with the halls, lobby, and vacant rooms as their playground, for example. Or when an area musician comes around to play tunes for the children to sing and dance to along with the elders.
Meanwhile, for the residents, the intergenerational engagement is a jolt back to the world of the living. In fact, it was this dynamic that caught the attention of the Seattle-based filmmaker Evan Briggs in early 2012. “For a long time I had been wanting to make a film that explored the issue of aging in America,” she says. “When I found out about this retirement home with a preschool inside of it, I felt that was a really beautiful and poignant way to frame some of the issues and themes I wanted to address.” Present Perfect, the resulting documentary due out in 2017, explores what happens when human connection across generations is encouraged and facilitated.
In a clip from Briggs’s documentary, a resident in a wheelchair with drooping jowls and stooped shoulders leans in close to a small boy to ask his name. “Max,” the boy replies. “Oh, Mack,” the gentleman says, leaning back in his chair. With admirable patience, particularly for one so small, the child states his name repeatedly, with increasing volume and ever more precise articulation, as the resident continues to get it wrong.
Another resident with advanced Alzheimer’s whose speech was incomprehensible garble was able to speak in complete, fluid, and appropriate sentences the moment she was wheeled into the baby room. “You could immediately see that she had accessed some part of her brain that had raised several kids,” Hoover says.
The institutionalization and bureaucracy of care homes tend to limit their ability to create such opportunities, according to Matt Kaplan, a professor of intergenerational programs and aging at Pennsylvania State University. “In nursing homes, policies tend to be rigid,” he explains. “How you spend your time, where you spend it—it’s all being regulated.” In other words, rather than forming organically, any relationships that develop do so within the framework set by the professionals.
And ultimately, just like Cinderella’s enchanted transformation, the magic may only last for a fixed amount of time. “As beautiful as [a program like this is], they march those kids right out of there at [6 o’clock], and five minutes later, that elder who had just been brought to life is sitting slumped over in a chair by a nurse’s station,” Thomas says. “And that’s the sad part of the story.”