Toddlers bop to surf music from a boom box, while a dozen senior citizens sit uneasily nearby — some dozing, others disinterested, and a few downright cranky.
But within five minutes, things start to change. Tito, a 95-year-old former truck driver with a hearing aid, smiles and bobs his head from side to side as a toddler stops by his chair to boogie. Rosie, a former nurse and teacher who can barely see, gets up to dance. And Bill, a 66-year-old retiree with Parkinson’s disease, bounces a little girl on his lap. By the end of the session, at the Mount Kisco Day Care Center in Westchester County, N.Y., it is hard to recognize the grumpy elders of a half-hour ago.
The two groups, at extremes of the aging spectrum, are at the forefront of a movement that is transforming elderly-care facilities and day-care centers alike. “Intergenerational” is becoming the new buzzword in the business of caring for both the very young and very old, as programs around the country join small children with elderly people who might otherwise be cooped up in retirement homes or living alone. The goal is to help the two age groups relate better — and in doing so, improve the energy and psychological outlook of elderly people as well as the social skills and confidence of pre-schoolers.
Though there have been experiments with the concept for years, it has only recently taken off. The number of facilities with joint care programs for the elderly and small children has grown by one-third, to close to 1,000 in the past five years, according to an estimate by Generations United, a Washington-based group that promotes intergenerational programs and policies.
And more are being started all the time. The Giles Health & Family Center, a day-care center for aging adults in Pearisburg, Va., is opening a children’s component by the end of this month. In July, the Macklin Intergenerational Institute in Findlay, Ohio, opened its doors. At the 189,000-square-foot “village,” the children often refer to the seniors as their “Grandmas” and “Grandpas.”
Experts say the programs encourage the kinds of relationships between young and old that once came naturally. In recent decades, the gap between generations has widened, with families becoming more spread out and elderly people fleeing for sunny retirement communities. Increasingly, older adults “may not be hearing a kid laughing or asked to change a diaper,” says Matthew Kaplan, a professor at Penn State University. Other proponents add that the concept offers communities a much more cost-effective way of providing care because resources and staff are shared.
Still, there are some concerns about regularly mixing the two groups, including worries that perpetually sniffling toddlers will pass germs to the vulnerable elderly. And questions linger over whether seriously ailing seniors — for example, those with advanced stages of dementia — are really the best thing for very small children.
Nevertheless, some studies suggest that being part of children’s lives can increase senior citizens’ sense of purpose and can lead to a healthier old age. One recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that senior citizens who volunteered in the Baltimore public schools reported increased strength, as well as better walking ability and fewer falls.
Another study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias observed 48 older adults over the course of a week at an intergenerational site. Researchers took note of the apparent mood and behavior of the subjects, coding it every five minutes. Results showed that the participants’ general well-being was significantly better when they interacted with children than when they did not.
Thrilled to be Called ‘Grandma’
Don Moses knows all this firsthand. After his 82-year-old aunt moved in with him in Arcadia, Ohio, her increasing forgetfulness and boredom soon became more than he could handle. Last year, he enrolled her at a nearby adult day-care center that had a joint program with children, and her whole outlook changed after just the first day, he says. She became more enthusiastic, and in particular looked forward to seeing the children. “That’s all she talks about when she comes home — the kids she saw today,” says Mr. Moses, who recalls how thrilled she became when one child called her “Grandma.”
Such interactions can help children as well. One study of 200 preschool children in Northwest Ohio sought to compare the social skills of pre-schoolers in an intergenerational program with those in regular day care. Overall, those in the intergenerational program scored higher in social development. In particular, they scored much higher in social manners — saying “please” and “thank you.”
Holly Berger, whose four-year-old daughter, Maisy, has attended intergenerational day care since she was six months old, believes that her daughter’s daily exposure to the “neighbors” at the ONEgeneration Daycare center in Van Nuys, Calif., has contributed to her heightened social awareness and outgoing nature. Maisy often reaches out to elderly people in the street or in grocery stores, either to engage them in chitchat or just simply to hold their hand.
“She has no concept of that being strange or scary,” says Ms. Berger.
People in the field stress that the focus of intergenerational activity should always be more on the interaction — how well young and old relate — rather than the actual activity, whether it is bowling or baking cupcakes. At the day-care center in Mount Kisco, September’s “Intergenerational Activity Calendar” lists at least a couple of shared activities a day, such as making “jazzy jewelry,” “bowling for dollars,” and “glue the apples.”
But much of the interaction is casual. One recent day, 86-year-old Lucy Todisco, sits with a two-year-old boy named William, who is two-fisting crayons. “Who are you going to draw — me or you?” she asks. Farther back in the playroom, Karl Essell, 73, reads “My Five Senses” to two-and-a-half-year-old Elena. “I hear with my ears…” he reads, then asks her: “Where are your ears?” Elena dutifully points to the sides of her head. “Oh, that’s excellent!” Mr. Essell replies.
The room has few of the bright, primary colors that are common at many day-care centers. They could be jarring to the elderly. The colors in the Mount Kisco center are more neutral, and the atmosphere is cozy and plush, with a sort of family-room feel. The seniors reside at one end while the children are on the other end. They meet periodically throughout the day, either in playrooms or in an outdoor patio.
Finding a Program
People interested in intergenerational programs can check Generations United’s online database of more than 500 such programs at www.gu.org. (Click on “intergenerational.”) People in the field say good programs should encourage spontaneous and planned interactions. Most important, staff should be trained in caring for both children and for the elderly, so that they are well-prepared for the unexpected. Centers typically have an “intergenerational coordinator” trained in caring for both small children and the elderly, whose job is to talk to staffs on both sides regularly and plan out mutually beneficial activities.
It is also critical to make sure one age group isn’t treated as there simply for the purpose of the other. “We have to remember that the other side of the equation is equally important,” says Elizabeth Larkin, who researches intergenerational care at the University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee. She believes it is imperative to have dual-trained workers so that both young and old feel understood. “It’s not a quality program if it’s not mutually beneficial.”